Fiction 101: The best of the rest
A Reno Story
The two-karat diamond rode down Virginia Street on the fair left hand of the red-haired, red-eyed woman. When it arrived at The Bridge, the woman unhoused it from her fourth finger, inhaled deeply, took a great stretch and heaved it with piss and venom.
Below, The Old Man, recently awakened from an unsatisfying night’s sleep, rubbed his bleary eyes in time to get a bead on that sparkling disc, which landed, not in the wet, but on the grassy, muddy bank. He stroked his balding head and muttered into his unshaven face, “I believe this will be a good day.”
“Let me out of here!”
“You’ve known I’m in here for three days! Let me out!”
“It’s 5 a.m.! Let me sleep!”
“Come on! Grab that pencil and the saw! The clamps, the gauges, the mallet! Get up!”
“You’re just a block of wood. Leave me alone!”
“I’m just a block of wood to everyone else, but not to you. You know I’m in here now. You know my every curve, every angle, every texture, every detail, all my grain. I’ll be the best carving you’ve ever done! NOW GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!”
A sudden downdraft walloped the plane just as the trigger was pulled. The shot was still true, though, and the coyote rolled hard into the dusty pan. She was back up in a second, running, limping, bleeding, startled when the Cessna crashed noisily and flipped. One wing had snagged a juniper, spelling the end.
She stopped in the shade of the damaged tree, unable to run anymore, and watched as the pilot crawled from the wreckage, coughing up blood and wheezing.
The coyote’s wound would never heal, and the disability would eventually starve her. But she wouldn’t go hungry that day.
Christmas bells ring when the door opens, all year long except Sundays. The ribbon is faded pink, hues away from its original scarlet. A permanent sound of commerce, it announces customers when he’s in back cutting meat and can’t see them for himself.
He thought the place finally sold. That retired couple from Vegas wanted a rural general store, loved the history, the landscape. His plans: Mexico, La Paz, sailing in the Sea of Cortez.
The word came yesterday: one spouse down, the other no longer interested in being a shopkeeper. He understands. Neither is he.
—N. Chrystine Olson
Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
Once there was a chicken that lived for two years after a farmer barely missed its brain while chopping off its head. Thinking of this story reminds me of my sister.
She and this boy, Wilbur, had been going steady. But one day, walking home from Winn-Dixie, she saw him with another. As she went charging across the highway toward him, a semi met smack-dab with her, lopping off most of her head but just barely missing her brain.
Sister lived on for nearly 20 years after that. And forevermore, she swore she’d never lose her head over another man again.
She sat completely naked in her ‘70 Volkswagen bus, the doorframe high enough to reveal only her pretty face and bare shoulders to passing traffic. A slight woman, barely in her 20s, and what she lacked in confidence she made up for in determination.
It was quitting time at her boyfriend’s machine shop, and sweat slightly beaded on her temples as he came out the back door and sprinted to the bus.
The passenger door swung open, and as silent shock filled Brad’s face, she playfully tossed her head back and wryly remarked, “So, I don’t surprise you anymore?”
Whoops, I did it again, got caught by my wife ogling yet another Britney Spears video.
All I could utter was, “It wasn’t me!”
She countered, “You’re not that innocent. Get professional help, or we’re through.”
(First to a psychiatrist, then referral to a neurosurgeon.)
“Doc,” I asked, “what’s wrong with me?”
“You have Britney Spores,” he said.
“Is it fatal; is there a cure?” I asked.
The reply: “Yes, the cure is a reverse lobotomy, where you will receive a brain.”
“How much is the bill, Doc?”
His reply: “Even if you were broke, my love don’t cost a thing.”
Sick Somethin’ Fierce
We laughed at first when Jonah got sick somethin’ fierce. Figured he just drunk, or wimpy after what we done to that girl. But his pukin’ didn’t stop, an’ when I checked on him, I screamed just like she had. Blood filled the toilet. I thought it seemed like somethin’ inside him was tearing itself out. I didn’t know how right I was till he turned, thick red ropes hanging from his mouth, blood running from his eyes, and said in a voice that wasn’t Jonah’s at all how he was Death and we was gonna suffer for our sin.
Right before boot camp, Maureen let me unbutton her sweater. She unhooked her bra, and I kissed her. She smelled like flour. She had freckles there, and when I am afraid of the mission, I think of those freckles.
My buddy Jerry and his girl are engaged. He gave her a diamond; she gave him sex. He likes to talk about it. I don’t want to listen—she is almost his wife—but I can’t help myself. I don’t want to be rough on my memory of Maureen, but sometimes at night I need more than freckles. I borrow Jerry’s fiancée.
The dream John got, inherited or sought out was the Absolut dream. It’s such a pretty dream in a martini glass. The drink so elegant in your hand. You can hide in there. I don’t know when it was John lost his confidence. I don’t know if the sweet, bitter vodka, tequila, gin, rum, absinthe, beer, wine, somebody give me a drink, gave him all the confidence he ever had, or took it all away. But now, these years, he prefers the drink in his hand, the reassuring sweat of the glass, to the less assuring glisten of a human touch.
Reno Church Closes
Sitting on top of the old city building, the pigeons gazed down lovingly at their subjects.
“Just look at them all down there, gathering to worship us,” said Pauly Pigeon.
“Oh, they probably want another flyby from the Royals,” Penny said. “Let’s give it to them.”
The flock, perfectly synchronized in a pattern choreographed centuries ago, swooped and turned, darted and soared over the crowd for two full minutes, landing back in the throne area.
“Let’s never leave this kingdom,” said Pete. “They obviously love us so, the plebes … what’s that sound?”
“… three, two, one ….”
And the Mapes exploded.
I took no pleasure in it whatsoever, and in fact, I wept uncontrollably throughout the episode. My twisted father insisted it was good for me, however. After he caught me carelessly crushing a bug one day, he scolded me severely, and as “proper punishment” (so similar to when he made my consequently nicotine-addicted brother smoke an entire pack of cigarettes), he made me slaughter a complete colony of ants. My tears magnified the already amplified ants as I watched them through the lens, running furiously and futilely away from the light, dodging salty empathic tears as they rained around them.
—Tim S. Guthrie
No cell phone. No remote control. No microwave. No personal computer. How the hell am I supposed to function? Damn, Larry, how could you just leave me out here like this? Here I stand in the middle of God knows where with something green beneath my feet. A sound like the birds I heard on the Discovery Channel is hurting my ears! Where are the damn green signs telling me which way is Detroit? Where are all the goddamn restaurants! I am going to starve; I just know it! I need to call my hairdresser! I broke a nail! … Larry!
The dream came again. Well, not quite the same dream. Just the same subject.
This time, salaries were reduced. Voices raged, “breach of contract.”
The night before, they begged me to return.
The worst was the night the Martis Fire threatened. The principal’s office burned. Rapidly, the office transformed into the entire school. And nothing was left.
These dreams sparked by an event eight months earlier. “You’ll finish the school year, but your contract won’t be renewed.” A simple statement, no reasons. With it 30 years of identity obliterated, up in flames. Could it be rebuilt as easily as a building?
It all started out so innocently.
“Let’s go see a movie,” Jean e-mailed her Saturday movie club. “I hear Moulin Rouge is good.”
That Saturday, as they all settled into their seats, the lights dimmed and the movie started, something came over her.
The colors, the costumes, the music … oh, the music! Why wasn’t everyone smiling so much their faces hurt, too? On the way home, she bought the soundtrack.
That night, in a mass e-mail to another group of friends, she said, “Let’s go see a movie. I hear Moulin Rouge is pretty good.”
Soon, people started to shun her.
Rex arched his back and let the summer sun warm his belly; he cocked his head back and squinted over at his significant other—she was on the patio in her favorite chair.
The old gal really was looking kind of ragged; how could she look so bad, and he felt like a pup?
He stuck his tongue out to let her know. First, she pretended not so see, and then a hurt look came over her face.
Pretending not to notice, he yawned and stretched, but a low growl and then throaty bark told him he had pissed her off.
June 24, 1937
The clock struck 12. Sally fell to her knees, sobbing and laughing. It was over, finally. No more closing her eyes and wishing she could close her ears to grunts and nonsense uttered in heat—noises that had haunted her dreams.
“Midnight, Sally,” a Reno constable said as he poked his head into her crib. “Prostitution’s illegal now. You’ll have to go.”
“Packed and ready, Bob.” Sally said with a laugh. “My life begins right now. Hell, I’d thank the city fathers for the new law, but I’ve thanked them often enough right here on this mattress.”
Dance With Me
The harmonica felt good in her hand. Cool, slick, smooth metal and just enough weight to make it feel like something important. She had never played, but many times had lost herself in the sounds of Lee Oskar’s magic mouth. She put the old Hohner up to her lips, and with giddy anticipation she blew. She inhaled, she exhaled, she slid it back and forth. She blew and blew and sucked and blew and made a lot of noise and never once considered it anything less than music. Spit rolled down her chin and she was happy, every breath a song.
God, it’s dusty here. This is not exactly how I remember the ranch from my youth. It once was so green. The alfalfa fields and apple orchards were irrigated regularly. Now I believe evolution has it at a turning point. Shall it be developed, or shall it return to nature, to sagebrush, to granite, to flood plain, to squirrels and mice, to dust? Foxtails and dust. The only reminders of human inhabitants being the brick house, four generations of machinery, scrap metal, vehicles and tires—too much for us to do away with. Nature will do away with us first.
She woke as early gray light started to fade, the room empty, knowing it wasn’t her bed. Coffee brewing mixed with the morning mist, bringing on memories. Back to Iowa. The farm. Summer. Him.
She had blocked out most of it for so long. The morning aroma brought everything back again. She lit a cigarette, waiting for what was next. Her new lover. Coffee. Life.
Leah brought her coffee, hot as always. Therese took the mug but didn’t drink. Tea, she thought. That would be her new drink. In for new memories.
—George C. Kapheim
Mary used to be fun to work with until she found religion. Now she says the Bible to customers over scrambled eggs, flapjacks and ham steaks. James says let’s take her on a trip—she’s under too much stress. So we all pile into James’ van and drive her to Six Flags over in Valencia. We take her on the Goliath and the Colossus and the Ninja until those roller coasters whoosh all that Bible-thumpin’ right out of her. Now she’s back to the same old Mary—smokin', drinkin’ and cussin’ out customers. It’s good to have her back.
The Last Time
She allowed herself the sexual longing. She labored under it throughout her day. She maneuvered it around corners and doorways. She balanced it on her back while feeding the cat. She took it to bed with her. She carefully unbundled it and examined each piece: words spoken, places visited, subjects discussed, barbs hurled in an effort to protect the soft places. She relived each touch, each furious thrust and gentle caress, each laugh, every whisper. The room swelled with the all of it. She lay watching the pieces swirl and float, coming together and going apart, a rain of sacred confetti.
—Rebecca M. Thomas
Oct. 13—My shrink is making me keep this stupid journal. I really could give a crap what my thoughts are now, or ever, for that matter. I never could write down my true feelings. I feel like such a fool.
Oct. 20—Another screwed-up day. I am so damn sick of listening to people talk. Everyone needs to get a f—-ing life! If one more person complains, I swear I’ll shoot them dead!
Oct. 27—This time of year brings out the freaks! I think they’re multiplying.
Nov. 3—Can’t write today. My next psychiatric patient is here.
Have you ever driven across Nevada? The best thing is that you never do. But if you do, there are a few good things to look for: wild horses, purple shadows on the curve of a mountain, the relief of sunset, the defiance of a lone bristlecone pine, the secret knowledge of a desert infused with gold, silver, copper, opal. Taste the minerals in the dust. If you’re traveling the Reno-Vegas route, keep your eyes peeled for Butt Rock, good for a laugh about four hours into the desert, where you’re near hysterical from boredom.
He stood in the doorway. Different but unmistakable. One eye was gone; the other seemed to glow. Dark tendrils crawled from the sockets. His long white hair whipped in the wind. He wore no shirt, just a long brown coat hanging open. Shadows hid in the creases of his muscles like infested scars. His flesh, always pale, had turned gross blue. His fist gripped a black pistol, and his face wore an expression that said he wanted to kill the world. Behind him, the red sky dripped black rain. I hesitated, then opened the door further for my friend.
“I once had an affair with a married woman,” he told me. I watched him inspect his salad. “She had long blond hair and breast implants.” He started picking out the unacceptable lettuce, piling it on his bread plate. “The problem was her implants. She had a dent in one, like she’d been hit with a golf ball.” He started to eat his diminished salad. “Did her husband find out?” I asked. “Yes, but he didn’t mind.” Glancing at the pile of rejected lettuce, he added, “I don’t think he liked brown lettuce, either.”
Migraine headache in my rib cage. Forest fire in my lungs. Face frozen numb. Swallowing blood, from mouth or nose or both. I stay calm.
Trainer sprays water. “This is it: round 10,” he says, jams rubber in my mouth. “Fight real.”
Bell rings. Up. He swings, misses. I throw a left, right, left. Body shots. Look on Jake “The Man of Steel” Keel’s face: realization, horror. Expected a dive. I jab, slug. Head shots. Again. Again. Blood on my face; not my blood this time. Another hit—harder than this fake could ever punch. Another. Down. Ten.
She had three cats, a dog and a female Amazon parrot named Butch who screamed like an overly sensitive car alarm after she went to work in the mornings. Once I had moved in, I realized the woman was as neurotic as the bird, but I hung on because the dog loved me, and I him, the both of us trading places as spiritual guides in the God/Dog dichotomy of everyday life. We were of a like mind, plus our coloration was similar, which is the only reason I can think of that I stayed as long as I did.
Kitty stayed in the car while I walked up the driveway to the remains of what had been our home for 20 years. Surprisingly, I was numb of any feeling as I picked through the charred lumber and ashes, trying to recognize the things that we had collected.
Then, when I stumbled into what had been the bedroom we added on when Kitty was pregnant with Charlie Junior, I was overcome with anger. This is where they found his body, the propane torch still in his hand.
Kitty has forgiven him, but to me, he’ll always be damned. He failed me.
11 p.m., Medford, Oregon, my father’s home until yesterday. Can’t find the mortuary, or a vacancy, or my way back to I-5, driving in deja vu loops the rented Lincoln I’d always promised Mom I’d chauffeur her around in someday. Too late now. Too late, too, apparently, with delays in Reno collecting my sister’s excuses and some necessities, to get fed, a bed, or a look at my dad, in a town where they seemingly roll up the on ramps along with the sidewalks. Looping. In my father’s town. In my mother’s car. Don’t even ask whose underwear I’m wearing.
Your cigarettes are staining my china. Once pearl white and dishwasher safe, my china sits on the kitchen table alongside the salt shaker and plastic pitcher of purple juice. After years of Winstons and no ashtrays, except those you pilfered from the old Jubilee Club and Mapes Hotel, black blemishes blur the rim of my china. With too many memories to merely hold your spent butts, these ashtrays keep the pennies, nickels and dimes that have been fondled by families of forgotten fingers. A smoke from the flattened pack slipped from your back left pocket dangles over my only china plate.
Lumps in My Taters
For Winston Smith it was rats; for me, it’s soft food, anything that might harbor a gag-provoking lump.
A group of us stood out in the exercise yard. Snowflakes floated lazily, settling on the razor wire and on the gray-coated shoulders of the guards.
We were herded into the gleaming white cafeteria for supper. Paper-cap-wearing attendants plopped food onto our metal trays.
I felt the panic rise when I saw the notice tacked to the wall: “We reserve the right to puree any prisoner’s food.”
Neither knew, after, who crossed the line; but, after, it hardly mattered.
He said. She said. And all hell broke loose.
Certainly neither lacked for ammunition, and sometimes, that’s enough.
“That’s enough,” she said, and he knew it was; but it’s so easy to poke and call it fun.
He’d claim, of course, that he couldn’t have known his taunting could lead to the frenzy that followed. But he knew. We always know.
No cause for surprise then, when she turned on him with the sharpened stick.
“I have,” she said, “a marshmallow. And I’m not afraid to use it.”