It’s Flash Fiction Week at TUAS!

This week two talented authors consider what’s left behind in the wake of loss.

Leftovers

by Ishita Aggarwal

I was finishing off Mom’s homemade brisket, Dad sitting across the table from me. We listened to the tick and tock of the wall clock and I realized. This would be the last time I’d ever eat it.

*******

Two Hours after the Funeral

by Jennifer Fliss

It wasn’t two hours after my father’s funeral that the aunts descended on our home. One, the one with less tact, plainly said “this is disgusting.” So many bottles. So many cockroaches. What do you do with the guns? They asked. How are they disposed? Bring them to the police. They’ll know what to do. I was mortified. That this was how we grew up. But now he was dead, and at the end of the day, boxes and boxes and half-finished bottles of vodka and trash and memories had left and even his ghost would not have recognized the place.

About the authors

Ishita Aggarwal was born in New Delhi, India. She immigrated to Canada in 1998 and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology, Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Toronto. Despite her formal education, she enjoys writing short fiction and poetry and recently published a short story in Setting the Scene: A Collection of New Canadian Short Stories.

Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin and California schooled, Seattle based writer. She holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and a certificate in Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Brain Child, Zelle (Runner’s World), Prime Number, Foliate Oak, Silver Birch Press, Blotterature, The Belltown Messenger, Daily Mom, Behind the Book, BookerMarks, and The Well Read Fish. More information can be found here: www.jenniferflisscreative.com

 

Prankster Comes Clean

by Randall Martoccia

wall of pranks

Wall of Pranks

I was a serial April Fools’ prankster up until that week in 2014. My MO was to make the prank look like a bulletin from a university department or, as in 2014, from the campus newspaper. That year’s prank—my 18th—was an Onion-style article about a pair of characters who are devastated to find out that their beloved East Carolina University athletic program is clean.

“Culprit Comes Clean” capped five days of fallout. On the day after the prank, I dismissed my class and saw a campus cop in the hall. My class had just talked about the Birther conspiracy belief, and the discussion continued down the hall. I noticed that the officer trailed us but I thought little about him. In fact, when he confronted me, I took him to be a former student. I greeted him how I usually greet students whose names I’ve forgotten: “Hey, how have you been doing?”—making up for my memory lapse with exuberance.

He asked if we could talk privately. It beat “publicly,” so we walked to my office. He showed me my flyer and asked me if I knew anything about it. I confessed, which he said was a good idea because I was “all over the surveillance cameras.” Around this time, I half-assumed that I was being out-pranked.

Was it wise of me to wallpaper my office with my past pranks? Probably not. There I was with a uniformed officer questioning me about a hoax, with the evidence of nearly two decades of impishness on the wall behind me. The décor resembled the wall clippings you see in the boudoirs of cinematic serial killers.

With this prank, my last, I made two undeniable mistakes. I used the campus newspaper to distribute the hoax (by stuffing my flyer into the issues). Also, I used the paper’s logo. I assumed that any readers with any sense would realize that it was an absurdist satire, but they would have no way of knowing that the prank was not from the newspaper staff.

Involving the athletic department might have been my third mistake. I did not satirize the university’s sports programs, but I understand why the leaders of the program were angry. The fear of improprieties hangs over any college program, so I get why the officials would dread even the whisper of a scandal—or the screaming of it in a bulletin’s bold headline. Plus, my hoax was off color. I have one of my distraught fans, John Tuttle, posit, “Handjobs get results.” The character is presented as a fool, but since no other hoax generated negative blowback, the fool was possibly correct about one thing: “Hand jobs” might have gotten a result.

That any part of me was expecting the officer to blurt out, “April fools, sucker!” shows my cluelessness. A couple of years ago, my buddy James Marshall asked me how I got away with my annual April Fools’ gags. Unlike corporations, I told him, universities tolerate dissent, even subversion. I pointed to a precedent. Several years ago, my hoax concerned the silencing of the Pirate Rants, a series of anonymous rants that appear in the campus paper, which—by the way—are the paper’s most popular feature. The then editor published a playful response, which read, “I would, however, like to thank the individuals who decided to create this unique prank because our readership increased….” To expect pranks to always be taken in this spirit was just wishful thinking.

Ultimately, no charges were filed. I sent apology letters to all of the offended parties. Seeing my name and face in the paper next to that headline made me edgy. I looked at the article that one time and couldn’t even bring myself to read it all the way through. For weeks afterwards, I avoided picking up the newspaper, fearing a reference in—yep—the Pirate Rants. I was done with April Fools’.

And I was relieved. April Fools’ Day pranks had become an obligation. Late March had become a stressful time for me, as I had to rack my brain to come up with a new gag that could top the previous year’s. A lot of people—I call them normal people—don’t feel the yearly urge to create satirical hoaxes. I’m now one of those people. So in this case, if none other, I’ve been normalized.

The Making of a Prankster

Slide1

Pranksterism runs in the family. My dad sprung something on his family every April 1st. I’ve picked up fake dog shit with a paper towel and swatted a rubber cockroach with a shoe. I’ve seen what looked like a tipped-over bottle of chocolate syrup on the kitchen counter only to realize that the spill was a flat piece of brown rubber.

The pranks he pulled on his Psychology Department colleagues were more sophisticated. They usually appeared in the form of department memos. I remember one of them, in purple mimeograph ink, announcing that ECU would be enrolling a pair of gorillas. This was back when Koko was astounding people with her communication ability. Marsha Ironsmith and John Lutz, my father’s colleagues, recall another prank that followed “a heated debate on the merits of the foreign language requirement.” The next morning, my father, who had been silent during this contentious department meeting, sent out a set of minutes—in French.

In 2001, the first April after my dad died, I was grading papers in my office over the weekend. I had taken on the tradition just a few years earlier, and feeling overwhelmed, I was planning on skipping this year. Then, something kicked in and I decided that, no matter how busy and how drained I was, I had to do something. My prank—a parody of the course flyers that were then common on my department’s walls—was probably my least ambitious both in concept and in execution. I made about ten copies and just taped them up among the real flyers. The mock course, by the way, was the most boring one I could think of, The History of Punctuation. I know of no one who tried to register for the class, nor do I know if it was noticed at all. Still, it’s one of my favorites. Continuing the tradition seemed so important that day, less than four months after my dad died.

In those first pranks, I was doing for (or to) my department what my dad had been doing for the psychology department. Local were the themes and the distribution. I was content to plant posters in the English Department office suites. I expanded into campus-wide pranks in the early 2000s. Some pranks were just silly, as in 2009’s “Bring Your Pet to Class Day.” In 2010’s “‘Pirates’ No More.” I had UNC system president Erskine Bowles change ECU’s nickname to the more politically correct Organic Space Farmers. Most hoaxes are inherently satirical, but with the silly hoaxes, the only target of satire was people’s gullibility. In some years, though, targeting a social issue or campus concern took precedence. In 2004, I had ECU launch a faith-based curriculum. The flyer, designed by my sometime collaborator, had a Heaven’s Gates gatefold.

One of my problems with the 2014 prank resulted from combining a hoax and a social satire. My usual strategy was to attract attention with a shocking headline and use a familiar logo to get past the readers’ skepticism. If someone wanted to suspect ill intentions, the 2014 headline—“Scandal! in the Athletic Department: No-show Classes, Paid ‘Chaperones’ to Entice Recruits, and Illicit Payoffs”—provided ample material. I’m confident that no one fell for the prank. In order for someone to believe that the fan club actually called for improprieties, one would have had to miss my clues, such as the bulletin’s picture and caption, wherein a football player flaunts cash above the words “Brian Cardiff holds up bills shamefully not given to him by the ECU Pirate Athletic Department.” And would anyone who misses the irony actually want to admit it? Still, this prank shows the problems that arise from mixing a hoax with social satire. I couldn’t pull it off, and I had 187 square inches to work with. 

“Whatever It Is, Randall Did It”*

In the days leading up to April 1st, 2015, I told everyone that my plan for that day was to be as innocently visible as possible. A friend threatened to make a bunch of “Randall masks,” assemble a prankster team, and release them—V is for Vendetta-likeon campus. I had a mix of worry and hope. Maybe the scandal would rise up again. Maybe the tradition would continue.

I behaved myself, but I didn’t have a chance to bask in the bright light of virtue for long. On April 2nd, in an unsigned editorial, which was primarily about the loss of several positions in my department, the campus newspaper staff wrote, “We consider it alarming that Randall Martoccia was not among the professors who were let go earlier this year,” meanwhile accusing me of slandering ECU’s football team. That the hit seemed so off (slander?) and so, well, old did not make it any easier to read. The same raw feeling came back, and I wondered about the future. Could I expect the scandal to blaze forth every April like azaleas? And then wilt a few weeks later, also like azaleas?

What disturbed me most was the loss of control of my image. Like most writers, I have some narcissistic tendencies. I occasionally cast myself in my own movies (and—good God—I’m no actor), but in those cases I’m in control of how the world sees me. My name and my old picture (in the 2014 article) were used willy-nilly by people with vats of ink at their disposal. My scandal was very minor, but I found that the public arena is an icky place.

While in that place, I saw myself the way my newspaper detractors saw me. Was I really guilty of something so awful? Well, the newspaper nearly seduced me into thinking so. Then something a colleague told me helped pull me out of my prankster remorse. This colleague—a thoroughly respected and respectable professor—stuck his head in my office and said, “If they can’t take a joke, fuck ‘em.” I had been suckered into seeing myself as a particularly humorless group saw me, and of course I was going to look like a delinquent to them.

As for my friend’s threat to deploy a band of masked pranksters on April 1st—well, I now wished that he had followed through. I wished to see the Pirate sculpture bedecked with shovel and jet pack as he transformed into an Organic Space Farmer. I wished to see the Pirate Rants turn Francais for just one day. I wished to lose control of my image in the grandest possible way. I wished for my face to really be “all over the surveillance cameras.”

Alas, my friend was only bluffing. For the first time in three decades and maybe four, ECU’s campus was free of the Martoccia prankster tyranny.

*On my first prank-less April Fools’ Day, an unidentified colleague posted on my office door a note with this message.

About the author:

Randall Martoccia teaches composition, literature, and film studies at East Carolina University and screens fiction entries (among other duties) for the North Carolina Literary Review. Several of his short videos can be found on YouTube. His most recent is Campus Ghost Walk/Folk Talk, a documentary about legends on East Carolina University’s campus. His work has appeared in War:Literature and ArtJersey Devil Press, and Skeptic Magazine. His poem “Love as a Space-Age Polymer” was a finalist in a Prairie Home Companion sonnet contest. His story “Pipe Dreams,” about his mother’s head shop, was one of the first stories published on the Tell Us a Story blog. You can read it here: Pipe DreamsTo see the pranks mentioned in this article and most of the others from Randall’s 17-year run, go to his blog: https://randallmartoccia.wordpress.com.

Empty

by Melissa Rose

the author’s mother

 

When I was ten

my mother became a celebrity

the newspaper headlines read

local teacher caught drinking and driving

passed out in the middle of an intersection

a can of beer still clutched in your hand

my infant brother in the car seat beside you

beg the reporter not to print the story

you were a single parent praying children wouldn’t be taken away

I didn’t know what “alcoholic” meant

just the sound of empty bottles

the smell of your breath.

 

Eavesdrop grown up talk about foster care for days but

probation turned weeds into wishes

when you were sober we used to take weekend walks down lonely beaches

collecting seashells like souvenirs

holding one to my ear you said

I could always hear the ocean inside if

I listened

the sound of amplified waves creates a rhythm only mothers and daughters can dance to

this is how I remember you

I was a young statue

admiring a flawless block of marble.

Every year chips away parental perfection

over time your overcast reflect a rock bottom I can’t fathom

became a helpless star

watching the earth pollute

herself.

 

Alcohol stains the gene pool like an oil spill

by age seventeen we share our hangovers

like secrets

our sentences never make

sense.

I used to admire you

now our similarities scare me

to this day there are times when I still need you

the day after I was raped you were too drunk for me to tell you what happened

I watch you deteriorate into detox clinics

still filtering out the parts of you I want to remember and

hold those moments like souvenirs.

 

When the afternoon finds you passed out on the couch I still

put my head to your chest just to remember what the world sounds like when

played to your rhythm

I want to bring the beach back home

gather shells from the sand

hold them to your ear so

you can listen for

the sound of the strength it takes to admit that

your imperfections are what make you whole

beautiful

and bottles are what made you

empty.

The author

 

About the Author

Melissa Rose has been writing and performing poetry since 2001. She currently travels across the United States conducting poetry workshops and helping others discover how writing can improve their lives.

This is NOT Another Dead Cat Story

by Jen Stiff

Orangie lounging in the sink

Baby Orangie lounging in the sink

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 1997, my older brother Ryan brought home a cat for her. We were devastated, and desperate for a distraction from the daily routine of chemotherapy, doctor visits, and the heartache that comes from knowing you’re about to lose your favorite person in the whole world. We knew that bringing my mom flowers or her favorite burrito from El Pollo Loco just wasn’t going to cut it. We had to do something BIG, and in our young adult minds, a kitten was just the answer.

We knew that our mom loved nothing more than cute, cuddly, boy kitties (she thought girl cats were stuck up bitches). Though my dad detested cats, he let him stay. He would’ve done anything to bring even a sliver of joy into my mom’s life. Plus my brother and I promised to take care of the cat full time. To prove it, Ryan and I took our mom’s new kitten to the vet for shots. “What’s the cat’s name?” asked the receptionist. “Oh, we’re not naming him.” I said. “Well, your cat can’t just NOT have a name. Obviously I need to write something down in his chart.”

“Fine,” I said. “Since he’s orange, just write that.”

The truth is, we’d intentionally avoided naming the cat, because our family’s cats had a long history of disappearing after six months. We figured if we named him, we’d get attached, and we didn’t want to lose anything else we loved. Every time we lost a cat, our mom sat us down and lovingly reminded us that boy cats needed to sow their oats. “The cat just moved up the street to be special friends with the neighbor’s new girl cat. I’m sure he has a really great life there!” This explanation worked until we were in high school, when we finally took note of that vast canyon behind our house…the one filled with coyotes and mountain lions.

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

***************************************

I’ll never forget the first time Orangie died. And then came back to life. It all started my junior year in college, late one night when I was home visiting my family for the weekend. There I was, sitting on the living room couch with my roommate, Angela, trying to figure out how to score some wine coolers, when I glanced over at the footstool and noticed that Orangie was rolled over on his back with all four legs sticking straight up into the air, eyes rolled back in his head…stiff as a board. Angela, being a third year biology major, knew exactly what to do.  She calmly kneeled down beside Orangie and pretended to check his heartbeat and listen to his breathing, but we both knew she was full of it. No response. Me, being the communications major, had a better idea. “Oh fuck!” I said. “We should really call someone.”

Though we didn’t know how to conduct a thorough medical examination on a cat, we were sure Orangie was dead. I was also pretty sure this was somehow my fault, because when you’re 18 years old and your mother constantly reminds you that your brain hasn’t fully formed yet, you’re bound to make lots of mistakes…like forgetting to clean the litter box, feed the cat, and leave the toilet seat up so he could find water.

After wrapping Orangie in a fleece blanket (because I know enough about dead things to know they get cold) we frantically jumped into the car with our lifeless kitty and sped away to the local animal ER. All I could think was, “My mom is gonna be SO mad at me!!” This was the first cat we’d had who’d hump blankets on the area rug during family movie nights, who enjoyed floating in the pool on a boogie board, and who cuddled on purpose. My mom, being rather eccentric herself, adored Orangie for his quirks.

It was 1997, before normal people had cell phones, so I couldn’t even call my mom to ask her what to do. But I had left her a note on the kitchen counter, like any responsible daughter would do, and told her the cat had died and that we drove him to the vet to get a check-up.  As I screeched into the animal ER parking lot, I expected trained medical personnel to run outside, rip Orangie from my arms, and calmly tell me everything was going to be ok, because that’s what happened to dead humans on that show that was popular at the time. But instead, we ran inside to find a bored receptionist, glaring at us over her trashy magazine. Clearly we had interrupted something. “What’s your pet emergency?” she asked sarcastically, looking at the undead kitty in my arms. You see, the minute we walked through that door, Orangie rolled over in my arms, meowed nonchalantly, and started giving himself a facial with his little pink paw. What the fuck? Angela and I looked at each other, shocked. The irritated receptionist didn’t believe me when I told her Orangie was, in fact, dead, just moments ago, but she also didn’t hesitate to “…bring him back to check his vitals,” either. This was just the first of Orangie’s fake little feline death games.

****************************

The second time Orangie died happened when Ryan ran him over with his white Honda CRX. Ryan was returning home from community college one afternoon and failed to see Orangie sprawled out in the driveway, sunning himself, oblivious to the world. As Ryan drove his car up the driveway and into the garage, he heard an excruciating shriek and felt a thud under his tire. Ryan got out of the car, horrified, to find Orangie lying in the driveway, lifeless. “Mooooooom!!!” Ryan screamed like a little girl… “I just ran over Orangie!!” My mom and I ran outside, panic stricken, expecting to find a bloody mess of a cat. Instead we found an intact Orangie, slowly beginning to wag his tail and stretch his arms and legs out like he was just coming off of his afternoon nap. What the hell? We looked at each other in disbelief. Orangie stood up, looked at us condescendingly, and sauntered off into the backyard, not a care in the world.

For a few months Orangie didn’t die at all. We kept expecting something to happen to him, especially because he liked to tempt fate and stay outside all night cavorting with the creatures of the canyon. And sure enough, we were woken up one night by the screeching of a cat fight. My dad peered out of his bedroom window into the backyard and saw Orangie fighting with a “small mountain lion.” I still don’t know if I believe my dad’s description of the perpetrator, but Orangie definitely fought another creature, and it surely wasn’t another domestic shorthair. He was beat up and bloody, with tufts of fur missing from his little body. But he didn’t give a shit. He licked his wounds and walked it off.

*******************************
 Our amazing mom died in 1998. We all wished that she had 9 lives but she didn’t. She made us kids promise to look after Orangie for the rest of his life, which, she was sure, would be short. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ll take good care of Orangie. He’s going to live forever!” I reassured her. Orangie bounced around from apartment to apartment as we settled into our adult lives, until he finally moved to Seattle with my brother in 2007, where he fit right in with people who always kind of want to die.

My brother called me a couple of months ago to tell me a really funny story. My 5-year-old niece, Annabelle, had decided to play dress up with Orangie the night before. Annabelle, not being one to neglect accessories, gave Orangie a “beautiful necklace” to wear. When Annabelle ran up to my brother and tugged at his hand, saying in her sweet little Minnie Mouse voice, “Daddy, Orangie is sleeping funny…,” Ryan suspected shenanigans were underfoot. He found Orangie, lifeless, under Annabelle’s bed, with a very tight rubber band (I mean, beautiful necklace) wrapped around his neck. Ryan removed the rubber band, patted Orangie on the back, and wouldn’t you know it,  Orangie sauntered off into the living room, not a care in the world.

Orangie

Old man Orangie still not giving a shit

 About the author

Jen Stiff lives in San Diego with her mountain man of a husband and the world’s two most adorable creatures – pugs named Frankie & Beans. She just recently figured out she likes to write, even though she’s technically old enough to be a grandmother. She spends her free time writing for a local animal rescue, traveling, and beating everyone else at yoga.

Room 568

by Jennifer McQuillan

Callie comes to me dragging her own fears behind her. What she can’t possibly understand is that my own anxieties, long dormant under a layer of medication and therapy and yoga, have risen to the surface like some rotting carp, sickening me with their foul putrescence, long-abandoned insecurities and self-doubt crippling me with their resurrection. Debt collectors shame me into payments I can’t afford, my colleagues whisper about me, my migraines sap my ability to function.

I cannot sleep.

Still I must rise too early to get to the high school, to make what little money I can to rescue myself and my daughter from this apocalypse. My own world is crumbling and yet I am somehow trying to keep myself together and shore Callie up too, a bulwark, a defense against razors and scars, bitches and rumors, tests and homework and expectations.

In spite of my own misery, I like it when Callie skips her class and hides in my classroom. It is my planning period, and I am supposed to be grading. Instead, we talk as her delicate hands rip to shreds my ever-decreasing pile of used file folders, “sticking it to the Man,” as she likes to call it. They have lost their authority and organization and meaning. We’ve created quite a box of dun-colored confetti, but it’s no matter. She wants to dip them in paint and make a mosaic, or maybe press it into handmade paper. That would be the transcendental thing to do, she tells me. We like to squish the shreds in our hands. Torn to bits, they are soft and vulnerable, and their hard edges no longer leave paper cuts on our fingers. Callie tells me she has an almost irresistible urge to toss the bits into the air and watch them fall, spinning their way down to the dirty institutional carpeting below. It would be a brief moment of freedom. We would still have to clean them up, the four walls would still press in on us, the florescent lights above mocking our endeavors with their stark hard glare.

Callie's mosaic

Callie & Jennifer’s mosaic

My hands are shaking.

Callie hides behind my desk as I teach, hides from her schedule and counselor and teachers and parents and so-called friends, not reading or writing but curving and looping her way through her own artistic graffiti, swirls and dots and flowers with names and pictures and messages coded cleverly in the maze.

I am lost in that maze too, despairing of ever finding either of us a way out.

***

It gets worse, of course. I am the first to crumple completely into dissolution, declaring bankruptcy, losing my house, my belongings, my mind some days. I have to ask my nine-year old daughter, Abby, to decide what toys she wants to keep and which she is willing to sell. I cannot bear to do this. Broken and wounded, I call Callie, asking her to come over to help me with this heinous task. She comes to my home and gently steers my little girl upstairs to help her sort through Barbies and art supplies and stuffed animals. I busy myself in other areas of the house, staying out of my daughter’s room, tears rolling down my face no matter what I try to do to pack up in preparation for our uncertain future. By the end of the day, Callie hugs me, but no words pass between us. There is really nothing to say. I am shattered, in pieces, the life I have known completely stripped away, and I cannot offer anything to anyone. I have lost eighteen pounds. My flesh has been flayed completely from my body.

I am raw.

***

Callie is next to fall, whatever strength and determination and comfort she brought that day only a mask, only her innate kindness shining through a heroin haze. Immersed in my own pain, I could not see. Her arms, already marked by years of self-mutilation, easily hid needle tracks. Her face-picking was just another manifestation of that ever-present anxiety we shared. When she dropped down the rabbit hole yet again, disappeared for weeks, months, at a time, I called it depression, believing she was still struggling with finding the right medication. I made excuses, I blamed her friends, I blamed her anxiety, I blamed her parents, I blamed her poverty, I blamed it all when it was right there in front of me, and I could not see. No longer a defender but an enabler, I swallowed her lies greedily when she would reemerge from the rabbit hole, so happy was I to see her. Callie had spent some time in the Oakland County Jail for shoplifting, she told me, but knowing her desperate circumstances I excused it, believed that the Great Recession was driving even the finest of us into once unthinkable situations, doing what we could to survive.

Now I blamed myself. I had been blind.

The flurry of text messages on a frigid Friday in December was devastating. Even now the story of what happened to her is too much to share. I promised Callie. It was a promise I would keep for months to come, a promise that I keep today. I went to the psych ward, I went to the detox center, I went to rehab, I went to halfway houses where her room was a cluttered shoebox. I bought her chicken finger pitas, walked up and down Main Street in Ann Arbor with her, clapping for the street entertainers. We drove to the thrift store, Macklemore cranked up in my car. We may not have had $20 in our pockets but we popped some tags anyway. In the middle of a sweltering August day with big thunderclouds overhead, Callie bought herself an enormous granny sweater, incredibly pleased with her purchase. Another winter would come, but this time, she would be prepared.

We are not whole, but we are no longer broken.

 About the author

Jennifer McQuillan is a veteran English teacher in the metro Detroit area. Her work has been published in The Literary Encyclopedia, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, and Proteus: A Journal of Ideas. She is working on her first novel.

To My Would-Be Boss and Corporate Curator (You Know Who You Are)

by Nancy Jackson

I was told that you wanted to maximize the benefits of a mature workforce

And that my experience would reward both myself and

my corporate co-workers.

 

I sat there, leaning in, with my run-down shoes

and throbbing varicose veins, and

I knew you weren’t talking to me.

 

I had just been discharged from a call center

where I couldn’t keep up with the recommended rate of production

and the dual-screen set-up left me:

 

confused…………………………..amazed

desperate………………………….anxious

hopeless……………………………flummoxed

 

(occasionally the words “senile” and “dementia’

would turn up in my inbox)

 

Eventually, after my tuna sandwich disappeared from the office

refrigerator and was replaced by someone’s deceased canary, nicely arranged

on a bed of hummous,

I determined that I was not going to be chosen poster girl

for maximizing the benefits of a mature workforce.

Once around that particular merry-go-round was enough for me.

 

So I explained to you that I had to leave, that I felt ill –

I terminated the interview –

I had a double Dewars at the corner bar

Where I met a nice guy to move in with.

Now we sell weed on CraigsList

And my benefits are maximized beyond my wildest dreams.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.59.44 PM

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.59.54 PM

About the author

Nancy Jackson was born in Findlay, Ohio. She received English and Juris Doctor degrees from The Ohio state University, and an MSW from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. She has retired from the practice of law but still works as a psychiatric social worker. She has traveled a lot of the world, and she looks forward to doing a stint as a volunteer in Haiti in the near future. She has two grown daughters, four grandchildren, a husband and a dictatorial cat. She resides in Monroe, MI, a Detroit outlier.

Sunday after Sundown

by Colton Green

Highway 41, where the incident happened

Highway 41, where the incident happened

We couldn’t figure it out – not in twenty seconds anyway. Something had flashed above the road toward our car and disappeared like a low-flying UFO nobody else saw. On Highway 41 in the foothills above Fresno on a hot September night, a dark sedan had parked on the shoulder, other side of the road, headlights off. A man and woman were standing on the highway side of the car, an underestimated danger. Years before, two teenagers changing a flat tire had been killed by a drunk driver on that very stretch. I was seventeen when my dad and I set out that Sunday after sundown to collect plankton from Millerton Lake for his high school biology class the next day. Seconds before it happened, the five-gallon aquarium was between my feet on the floor as we coasted along about 45 mph so the water wouldn’t splash much. Whatever the flying thing was, it had seemed to be aiming for our car.

“What was that?” Dad asked. We were in silent agreement that whatever it was, we’d never seen anything quite like it.

“Yeah, that was weird.” I looked back through the rear window at the too-dark road.

The atmosphere inside our Chevy Monte Carlo was now frosted with an otherworldly chill that posed the question of whether to get involved.

TUAS-Author as a Teenager copy

The author as a teenager

“Should we . . . turn around?” Dad asked slowly, as if hoping some logical Oh, that’s what it was would come to mind and make sense of the puzzle for us.

After holding my breath I said, “I think we should go back.”

The mind works fast but not always efficiently when faced with an unknown, especially when turbulence is in the air. Adrenaline can either save you or lead to your undoing. We cautiously headed back, drove up slowly and parked behind the sedan with our high beams on. The man and woman were now inside the vehicle. Dad, squinting hard, told me to stay behind him.

We got out of our car and approached their driver side door. With the authority of a highway patrolman he announced, “Evening folks, I’m a school teacher and just wanted to make sure everything’s alright.”

Our suspicions were answered with a shriek when a young woman bolted out of the passenger door holding something in a light blue blanket and screamed, “He tried to kill my baby! He threw my baby at a car and it landed in the road!”

My spine was now in full-blown tingle as my mind raced from solve-the-mystery to life-or-death. The young mom didn’t realize that it was our car the baby had been thrown at, and that we’d turned around.   She frantically scrambled to where she could use me as a shield against her perpetrator. Clutching the back of my shirt, scattering gravel, she pulled me backward with her toward our passenger door. Dad signaled me to get her into the car.

The smartest thing my dad did that night was resist the urge to back away. Thinking fast, he leaned into the car until he was nearly nose-to-nose with the accused, and could smell the alcohol. As a teacher, my dad knew that bullies are cowards at heart, and as a cross country coach that ran with his team every day, he still had the confidence to physically engage if necessary.

“Now Mister, we’ll be taking the little lady and the baby to the hospital. I reckon it’s better if you leave us be and head on home.”

Even though Dad was a transplanted Indiana Hoosier with a leftover drawl, he never talked quite like that. In the face of a violent situation that could have gotten worse fast, he decided to talk like a farmer in the hope that this guy, a dead ringer for Charles Manson, might come from farm folks. Dad told me later he was reasonably certain this type of guy would have a gun somewhere, and was only hoping it wasn’t under his driver’s seat. Dad had always kept a sawed-off baseball bat under his driver’s seat just in case he ever needed it, but the one time he might really need it, he’d chosen words instead. He backed away and headed for his steering wheel.

Now that the four of us were inside our car Dad started off slowly after a U-turn, gradually and deliberately speeding up. When I looked back I saw Manson’s car send dust flying as it also launched a U-turn.

“He’s following us Dad.”

“We’re going to be fine, son, don’t worry – there’s no way in the world he’s going to catch up.”

The author's father, Coach Don Green

The author’s father, Coach Don Green

Now, we were traveling along at a soothing 85. It would be about fifteen minutes before we got back to the reassuring obstacles of town traffic. Of course, my dad would have preferred to leave the troubled man in the dust but he held steady, testing his ability to gain on us. In 1970, Chevrolet general manager John Z. DeLorean introduced the first Monte Carlo. Dad had decided on the most powerful option, the SS 454 with Turbo-Jet engine, four-barrel carburetor and 360 horsepower. Earlier that summer on the way back from our Indiana vacation, driving across the Mojave Desert, he got it up to 115 “with power to spare,” he said at the time.

Just then, I looked back and saw Manson’s car swerve, skid and roll over in a spiral before tumbling to a woeful rest upside down.

Back at the scene of the mysterious flying object, when we’d first seen young mom leap from harm’s way toward us, I’d thought she was older than me, but now on closer inspection I realized she might be younger. She cuddled her baby and shook convulsively, trying to catch her breath. Her plain beauty took me by surprise; I hadn’t noticed it when she was screaming her desperate survival plea. If she had gone to my high school, I would’ve wanted to talk to her, and I couldn’t help but compare my situation with hers. Where were her parents and what was her upbringing like? How could someone my age end up in such a terrible situation? Had her father taught her how to stand up for herself? I hoped that she would never forgive her boyfriend or husband, or whoever he was that had tried to kill her baby.

When I said, “He just crashed and it looks bad,” young mom sighed a sigh that made me ponder every woman ever who has suffered under a coward.

Then she uttered her only words of our ride: “Please don’t tell my father what happened; he has a bad heart and if he finds out, it might kill him.”

At the hospital, everything slowed down. She called home on a pay phone after Dad gave her a few dimes. At the same time, he called the police to inform them of Manson’s accident.

Soon enough, she was introducing us to her father as “the kind gentleman and his son who gave me a ride.” And he surely did look like he was just a horseshoe nail away from heart failure. In his cowboy boots and hat, smelling of nicotine and hay, her father kept repeating, “I’ll kill the son-of-a-bitch.”

Finally, after a long wait, we found out that by some miracle the baby had nary a scratch or bruise. I surmised the possibility that in mid-air, having been cruelly sent flying onto Highway 41, the baby had also spiraled as the blanket enfolded him before cushioning his impact.

Outside the emergency room doors, a siren wound down and hospital commotion ensued. Emergency care workers yelled as they barged in with a gurney. I noticed Manson before she did. He was on the gurney, strapped down with bloody head bandages and a neck brace on, helpless as a newborn yet not nearly as alive. He was looking straight up, to heaven I suppose, maybe offering a plea for forgiveness, wondering what life would be like paralyzed, or thinking of all the I’m-sorry-baby-it’ll-never-happen-again-I-swear-noone-will-ever-love-you-like-I-dos he was going to trill and coo when he saw his sweet darling again.

When she laid eyes on his hapless form, a crimson wind whipped across her face. After a scornful stare that morphed to a daydream of sadness and then to the positive resolve of new found freedom, she gave a kick to the back right wheel of the gurney, the one directly under the accident victim’s karma-targeted head. Predator and prey had traded places. She stood statue-still staring down at him, saying nothing and everything.

With healthy baby safe in her arms, she exited the emergency room doors walking tall as triumph alongside her bowlegged pop under the yellow parking lot lights. I wondered what would happen to her. Had tonight altered her tomorrows and her baby’s forever, in a good way? Would she be a struggling single mom now, and would she ever be able to go to college and escape farm town America, like I was determined to do?

As her dad opened the passenger door of his old banged up pickup truck, she took a moment to lean down and kiss her tiny miracle on the lips. Then young mom looked back at the emergency entrance, took a breath, and shook her head before getting into the truck and driving off toward the unknowable future.

About the Author

Colton Green is a New York-based writer, actor, teacher and coach. After a career in Broadway theatre (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Ragtime), film and television, Colton won the Honors Colloquium Writing Award at Marymount Manhattan College, and earned a master’s degree in English at Columbia University Teachers College. Currently, he collaborates in creation of an experimental high school in the Bronx. In his Spoken Story Workshop, Colton guides authors preparing for literary readings. Above all, Colton is the pleased-as-punch father of Curtis and Pearce.

At the Sound of the Beep

by Trudi Taylor

photo credit: Trudi Taylor

photo credit: Trudi Taylor

He read Mark Strand poems into my answering machine.

Masculine firmness mouthing each word. Susurrus of certain phrases. Over the next weeks, he quoted Laughlin, Brautigan, to return to Strand. I stopped. Listened. His daily messages were like worms fed to a starving baby bird. Beak to beak. I fell in love.

Then he disconnected and married a roadrunner.

 

Trudi Taylor, Ph.D., is a Scottish immigrant descended from sculptors, musicians, policemen, and mariners. Starting when she won the 8th grade creative writing contest, Trudi has been published in online and print anthologies. Her book, Breasts Don’t Lie, a short story collection, explores body image, sexuality, and identity. To support her writing habit, Trudi works as a yoga teacher, massage therapist, and counselor in North Carolina.

 

The Pink Room

by Angel Eduardo

The editor’s 5 yr old draws the inside of her school’s “pink room.”

By the third grade, we had all become experts at knowing exactly when and how to ask to go to the bathroom. Even I, who moved to Fort Lee at the beginning of that year and had just begun to settle in, was wise to the system from practicing it back in New York. The ability to read the teacher’s mood and determine the precise moment to ask was essential. You didn’t want to interrupt her train of thought during a lecture, and you definitely didn’t want to draw too much attention to yourself by breaking classwork silence. The exchange had to appear as casual as breathing and as unimportant as a paper cut. You also couldn’t ask if someone else had just gone, for fear of a pattern being suspected. If the teacher ever caught wind of something like that, bathroom breaks for everyone the rest of the day would be under high scrutiny. You did not want to be that guy.

Proper scheduling was also important. In the morning, you had to gauge the distance between your bathroom trip and recess. In the afternoon, it was finding a good spot between lunch and three o’clock. Planning things this way, you could maximize your free time. If you asked to go to the bathroom twenty minutes before lunch, you wasted a perfectly good break. You also couldn’t go at the same time every day, because they’d definitely notice the pattern. I’ve seen many of my friends fall into that trap—mysteriously having to use the bathroom at ten forty on the dot, three days in a row. Their teachers called them out on their schemes, denied them escape, and embarrassed them in front of the whole class. Their bladders were never trusted again.

Asking for the bathroom pass in elementary school had little to do with actually using the facilities. Sure, we did our business while we were there anyway, but it was more an opportunity to take a slow walk down the hall and dilute the drudgery of the school day. Once, early in the year, I had been biding my time for that golden moment. When it finally came, my hand shot up and I asked. The words had been rehearsed endlessly in my mind. I experimented with shifting the emphases, altering the tonality, doing anything and everything to make sure I sounded as casual as possible.

“Mrs. Urgo, can I go to the bathroom?”

After this come the few seconds between the petition and the response, when your heart feels like it might fly out of your chest from the anticipation. This is the hardest part. You have to keep your face straight, your hand up, and your eyes wide with the subtle urgency of nature calling. If she accepts, you’re free to venture out into the hall for a brief respite. If she declines, you can do nothing but slump down in defeat, sharing your red plastic chair with the boatload of disappointment that she has just dumped on you. Moments like those seemed to slow the clock, make class subjects even more mind-numbing, and bring your tolerance for it all to near non-existence.

“Yes, Angel, go ahead.”

Success felt great, and it was always difficult to hide that, but you had to. Your teacher could just as quickly retract her permission if she began to suspect foul play. You had to keep cool, acting like you were doing nothing more than carrying out a simple bodily function—a biological necessity. It was also important not to dash out of the room. Besides making your true intentions obvious, you were also risking everyone thinking you had diarrhea. You didn’t want to seem totally lax, either, though. After all, if you asked to use the bathroom, it clearly meant you had to go. It took practice and skill to find the right balance, but, like I said, by eight, we were pros.

I slowed my pace significantly once I walked out of the classroom and into the hallway. I hummed my way down the hall, looking at the art projects that adorned the bulletin boards on either side of me. I had the added luxury of getting completely lost in thought this time around, so the three-minute trip to and from the bathroom felt like a glorious eternity. I stopped at the water fountain to take a drink—another great trick for stretching the break time. The best part about this was that it could be done once on the way to the bathroom and again on the way back to class without arousing the slightest suspicion. We need water to live, after all, and you can have as much as you like. Still daydreaming, I pushed open the bathroom door and stepped inside.

My mind suddenly snapped back to reality as I looked up and around the room. There were many more stalls than I remembered, and they were on the opposite side than the day before. The walls and tiles were pink, and there weren’t any urinals. I stood for a moment, disoriented, with an ominous sense welling up in my gut that I was at once lost and trespassing. Halfway through wondering why the school would suddenly re-paint the bathroom pink, it hit me. Horrified, I quickly jumped through the door and started back towards class. My mistake was painfully obvious. The water fountain was located on the wall between the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms. Since ours was closer to class, we had to pass it to take a drink, and then double back to it afterwards. I must have been so lost in my daydream that I just kept walking. Luckily for me, their bathroom was empty; they didn’t care as much about ditching class as we boys did. Nobody saw me. No one can tell. Still freaked out, I forwent my second stop at the water fountain and tried to hurry back before anyone would notice.

No dice. Mrs. Urgo was talking to another teacher outside the classroom door as I approached, and since I was the only kid in the hallway, I was impossible not to see. There were no corridors to duck into and no nooks to hide in. Noticing that I was a little farther down the hall than I should have been, they stopped chatting and stared as I made my way towards them. I struggled to force nonchalance into my gait as the fear of what might happen to me filled my belly and threw me off center. My legs were shaking. No matter what I did, I was scared as hell and completely unable to hide it.

Mrs. Urgo’s friend turned to her with a smirk and asked, “Was he…?”

I stopped in front of them and stared blankly.

“No,” Mrs. Urgo answered casually, “he wouldn’t do that. Would you, Angel?”

It took me a moment before I shook my head in response. They both took a long, hard look at me as I stood there, staring down at my sneakers, desperate to just get back to my seat and forget about this whole thing.

Finally, Mrs. Urgo spoke.

“Ok, Angel, go ahead inside.”

I didn’t realize that my entire body had tensed up until I heard those words. Upon her pardon I felt my shoulders drop, my breathing slow, and my face loosen. My body felt like jelly as I walked back into the classroom and sat down at my desk. Pulling out my notebook and pencil to get ready for the next subject, and trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, I looked up at the clock. There was still an hour-and-a-half left until recess.

About the author 
Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, and photographer from North Jersey. He writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing for Memoir at CUNY Hunter College in New York City. More of his work can be found on his official website, www.angeleduardo.net.

Riding the Schilthorn

by Bob James

The author rides the Schilthorn

The author rides the Schilthorn

 

Stephen and I stood at the edge of a steep incline and stared down into the bank of fog fifty yards below. To our left stood the Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant propped on top of the Schilthorn, and up whose slopes we had hiked earlier.

We had taken some cardboard boxes from the back of the restaurant, fashioned them into makeshift sleds, and the plan was to ride them back down the mountain.

It was the middle of August, the peak of summer. Stephen had done this before in April. On lunch trays. And it was at his encouragement that we were here now, holding onto our bits of cardboard, looking at the fog, and wondering what might lie beyond. For all I knew, the edge of the world might have been buried in there. The journey back down, he assured me, “will be the ride of your life.”

Looking back, I don’t know why I paid any attention to Stephen. He was from New York. What did someone who lived on 61st Street, whose only brush with the outdoors was when he crossed Central Park to pick up bagels, know about mountains? I don’t know if he had considered that conditions might be different at this time of year or not, but if he had even hinted at how melting temperatures during the day, combined with cooling temperatures at night, would replace the soft powdery snow of earlier in the year and leave this part of the mountain wrapped in sheets of ice, things might have been different. I like to think that if he’d mentioned this sort of detail, I would not have sat down on my strip of cardboard.

But he didn’t. All I knew was that he’d gone down on a tray earlier in the year and that it had been an experience worth repeating. And I knew that I wanted that experience for myself. If I were a smarter person, I might have wanted something different. But I’m not. So I got into position and sat down on the cardboard.

I’d figured that if I just sat there, a step closer to launching myself down the mountain but still able to back out if I chose, I’d get a better feel for whether or not this was something I actually wanted to do. I distinctly remember that at that moment I had not made up my mind to actually go anywhere.

I knew immediately that I’d made a mistake, and it wasn’t anything intuitive. It wasn’t like I’d gained a sixth sense and could see beyond the present. It was the very real knowledge that during normal everyday activities – like vacuuming or ironing a shirt – I did not suddenly accelerate from zero to sixty at a rate that would outstrip a Maserati.

There was no warm-up to this shift in scenery, no gentle gathering of pace during which I might have looked around and enjoyed the view. There was no moderation at all. It was instant, life-throttling speed. There was nothing, and then there was everything. The Big Bang of sliding down mountains.

I’d like to say I had thoughts as I shot like a heat-seeking missile toward the village of Gimmelwald some five miles below. I’d like to say I gave thanks for not being seated on a polished, restaurant serving tray. Or that I wondered if I hadn’t possibly misheard Stephen, and what he’d actually said back there at the top was that this would be “the last ride of your life.” But all that existed on that lonely mountain as I was pounded against the ice was the very real sense that this was not going to finish well.

My instinct was to somehow get off. But I was 10,000 feet up, and the only way to get off was to get down. I was already heading down. I realized that the only thing I could do was to keep hold of the cardboard. That seemed important.

I was moving very quickly and getting pounded against the ice. Deep ruts had formed, and I would go down, slam into the other side, and come shooting up again out of the crevice.

Until I arrived at a stretch of ice that stood like a tsunami frozen into place ahead of me. When I smacked into it, my cardboard went in one direction, and I sailed off in another. Sometime later I landed, bounced on my back and slid for what must have been a few hundred yards, and eventually came to a stop. I don’t know if this was because the ice ran out, or if it had been the cardboard the whole time that had kept up my momentum.

I found myself alone on the mountain, and in pain. The grey fog was above me now, the day bright, the sun warm on my weathered face. My leg was on fire. When I looked, it appeared twisted at an odd angle.

I shouted up the mountain. “It was an experience!” But I didn’t mean this in a good way. I hadn’t intended it as an enticement to follow me down. They were simply the first words out of my mouth. If I’d had time to reconsider, I would have said something else. But it was too late. Stephen had heard me.

Let me explain something about Stephen. He had landed in Europe from New York with a train ticket and a plan to stay two months. Fourteen months later, returning to New York in the foreseeable future was still not on his agenda. His goal was to take in every blade of grass. He wouldn’t be finished until he had collected a lifetime of experiences. There was nothing that meant more to him than the experience. The experience was everything, the paint to life’s canvas. So when he heard me shout this word back up to him, he didn’t give it a second thought, and unknown to me, leaped onto his cardboard.

The first thing I saw emerge from the fog was a couple of apples. They were still gathering speed when they passed me. And then a peanut butter and jelly sandwich came sliding down, and I realized the bag Stephen had been carrying must have burst open, and now the contents were in a race to the bottom. I looked at the fog, and wondering what might be next to appear, tried to visualize the exact contents of the bag.

The next thing to appear was Stephen’s hat, and this surprised me because the hat hadn’t been in the bag. Stephen had been wearing the hat. And then Stephen’s cardboard appeared, without Stephen on it. And for a brief moment, I might have actually started to worry.

But of course, Stephen finally did emerge from the fog. He was on his back, and spinning in circles as he slid over the ice. He was also obviously bleeding, and by the looks of it probably quite badly, because he was leaving a red trail in the snow.

And because he was spinning, the effect was quite striking. A kind of naive but bold art.

 

About the author

Bob James was hitchhiking in Europe when he met Stephen in a Luxembourg youth hostel. It’s because of this meeting that he now lives in New York. He has yet to forgive Stephen for this. Recently, Bob started his own website, bobjamesink.com, where he writes about whatever he wants.