Back in a flash
The other winners of SN&R’s annual Flash Fiction contest
Here’s the second installment in the two-part series now known as SN&R’s second annual Flash Fiction contest. These are the winning entries from among those that were excluded from the first round of judging by a pesky little computer glitch (see “Flash Fiction,” SN&R Feature Story, December 28, 2006).
As promised, judge Jodi Angel, prize-winning author of The History of Vegas, has weighed the entrants who missed out the first time around and selected first-, second- and third-place winners, as well as two runners-up. The judge’s comments follow each of the winning stories. Without further ado: Sacramento’s shortest stories for your enjoyment.
by Paul Wiltz, Sacramento
The red digits of the time clock say you’re five minutes late again: 6:05. It’s been stealing from you for six months. Your plastic watch says so. So you punch in late, dry dog food pellets crunching under your indignant boot.
Never the only one, you pick up your pace anyway, bending. The union stooges milling about the cold warehouse floor already, they make your teeth grind more than they already were. They constantly mutter, challenge, repeat: “seniority … time spent … don’t have to.” Any minute now, the supervisor’s gonna walk up from his warm non-union cubicle, fingering his mustache, and start commanding everyone to stretch in avoidance of time-robbing injury that might cost the company money or you your job.
Ten years later, you’re stacking cases on brittle wooden pallets. Cases of soup, cases of napkins, cases of juice: The shrink-wrapped freeze-dried noodles insult you with the opportunity to feel strong, disrupting the balance of the bowel movement that is morning. The supervisor’s heels click through his tour of the work stations, inspecting lifting style, stacking efficiency and speed, his eyes enforce the company’s greed. The cat food’s a middleweight case, nine cans in one hand, easy to grip, neck-size. Your neighboring station smells like dried vomit breaking sweat.
Gray walls, metal doors, kicked by denim and flannel whores. “You’re gonna get a lean over here,” super says, petting his tie, witholding eye contact. You become the conveyor belt, kinetic hands and collapsible spine. Seething rubber, you stretch and bend.
Judge Jodi Angel on “Manly Rebellion": This flash-fiction story does a great job with point-of-view and description. Second-person point-of-view is difficult to write, and almost impossible to write well. For one thing, you have to ask the reader to star in the story, and most readers don’t like being told what they’re going to feel, how and when. I loved the language in this story—there are many images that are striking and strong, and while it comes precariously close to stringing together imagery without a breath for plot, it manages to tell a story and make us all part of the machine.
Paul Wiltz was unavailable for a photograph.Second place:
by Paul Mann, Sacramento
Denny mumbled to himself as he sat outside the boss’ office.
“Excuse me?” Jensen’s secretary asked.
Denny lifted his massive head, his chins expanding like a fleshy accordion. He fixed an empty gaze upon her and she retreated back to her keyboard.
He didn’t care. This was the day he got back for everything—the fat jokes, the rudeness and the daily torture of coming to work. He pictured walking into Jensen’s office, shoulders slumped and head bowed in typical Denny style, putting the boss at ease. He’d be his usual docile self, disarming Jensen to the point that he would feel comfortable enough to throw his feet up on the desk and begin to chew Denny out. After a few minutes Jensen would ask Denny what it was he was obviously trying to conceal in his hand buried deep in his coat pocket. Then Denny Carlyle would show Walter Jensen who was boss.
Denny’s plan went according to script. As expected, at the appropriate time, Jensen, comfortably reclining in his oversized leather chair, nodded toward Denny’s hand hidden deep in his coat pocket.
“What ya got there, Denny?” Jensen nervously inquired.
“My future!” Denny barked back.
Denny raised his hand to reveal a winning lottery ticket and slapped it down on Jensen’s desk like a royal flush. Then he sat back, clutched his chest, and died of a burst aorta.
Jensen walked around the desk, checked Denny’s pulse, smiled, tucked the lottery ticket into his pocket, and dialed 911.
Judge’s comment: In the true spirit of O. Henry, “Retribution” walks the reader down a narrow, expected path, and then takes a hard right. Instead of fulfilling our expectations, they are shattered and replaced by the reinforcing reminder that there is no justice—even when we can see it coming. Denny’s characterization is excellent, and we are given just enough description to visualize Denny and Mr. Jensen as the stereotypical underdog and the tyrant boss. While I found myself rooting for Denny, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d be more like Jensen, and just walk. It’s an excellent paradox.Third place:
“The Linguist’s Assistant”
by Kevin Mims, Sacramento
I grew up next door to Professor Landisman, the famous linguist. My mother said he was a walking dictionary, his head filled with every known fact about the English language. He gave me candy if I’d read nursery rhymes into a tape recorder. “Cock Robin,” “Ding Dong Bell, Pussy’s in the Well"—I read them all.
Whenever mother asked why, he’d get all inscrutable and mumble about monographs he was writing, with obscure titles like “Aspirated Consonants and Holophrastic Utterances in Children’s Literature.”
Now, 30 years later, he’s dead and his archives made public. Seems he had more than linguistics on his mind. He’d spent years splicing together pornographic audiotapes from my readings of innocent little rhymes like “Tom Tit the Piper’s Son” and “Crippled Dick Upon a Stick.” A grad student at the university made a video combining my porno readings with X-rated movie footage. Zillions have viewed it on YouTube, making me a laughingstock worldwide. “Linguistic Lolita” the tabloids call me, and mother worries that the cat and the fiddle weren’t the only ones being diddled in those basement recording sessions.
Were he alive today, I’d track down the old perv and tell him: “Hey, Mr. Dictionary Head. Don’t go getting all inscrutable with me. I know the truth about your self-indulgent studies of the aspirated consonants and holophrastic whatevers.”
Except I’d splice out all but syllables 1, 4, 8, 10, 15, 26, 27, 28, 34, 35, and 43. That’d put a ring around his rosie.
Judge’s comment: This story is a great literal play on words, and even though it tipped its hand in the first nursery rhymes, the narrator is coerced into reading—the trajectory of the story exceeds my expectations. The last two lines are great. I couldn’t help myself and did the syllabic math. The more I look at all of the ways in which this story plays on language, what it says about the literature we are raised on, and how even intellectual property can become nothing more than a head game, the more I appreciate the story it tells.
by Elsie Ng, Sacramento
They were in the kitchen fighting before dinner. Mostly, Dad was standing in his apron yelling at mom, who was seated and crying across the Formica table. The forty watt bulb burned as the walls grew closer and my heart sank deeper. I was listening and peeking on my knees in the hallway. At one point he slammed his palm on the table causing the utensils to jump. Mom just sat quietly sobbing with that silent Chinese mom look. “Leave her alone,” I screamed inside and then suddenly had a plan.
Dad would frequently get up and down from his chair at the dinner table and all I had to do was pull the chair back from behind him and he would fall back onto the floor. As Dad got up from his chair to serve dinner, I gently pulled the chair back as he expected to slide back into it. Boom! He fell on his bottom and hit the linoleum like a 6.5 earthquake and the kitchen shook.
His face instantly soured up in pain. He didn’t even look accusingly at me as he slowly got up grabbing is back. It had knocked the wind right out of him.
After that, I felt bad for causing him such awful pain. Then after the guilt, I felt anger. Angry because I couldn’t speak my mind. Angry because my mom didn’t fight for herself.
by Tully Barker, Folsom
You climb the tower through cold darkness on wet rungs, sneaking because if caught you won’t get the chance to kill yourself tonight. Your pack has room—and you have time—for only one chance at life. Your pack is a nine pound metaphor.
You teeter at the void. A shred of ancient ape DNA urges you back but the drop calls. You slide forward, wet oily edge hard underfoot, toes in black air. A slow slip starts.
You let it.
The edge passes your arches. You might be able to pull back. Or maybe not. Fear and glee mate—roughly, with Fear behind, gripping Glee’s shoulders—and produce gravity lust. And adrenaline.
Just a little more.
Heels meet space.
Thirty two feet per second squared. Cold clean wind and a stomach afloat; you are a falling star.
Your hindbrain urges you to thrash.
You hold still. The airblast means you are hurtling toward death unless two dozen square meters of nylon should appear above you.
It could happen.
You throw the pilot and the longest third of a second of your life starts. You know it will have a sudden end, but not which sudden end. The ground lunges up, excited to see you.
The canopy snaps to life and your harness yanks your crotch in a way that says you live. One swing and Nikes kiss dirt.
Until next time.