Local writers zapped SN&R’s annual contest with their best short, short stories
SN&R’s second Flash Fiction contest once again drew submissions from all over our circulation area and included everything, from an epic poem (which was, unfortunately, disqualified for exceeding the 250-word limit) to stories so short that a reader would assume they’d pass by in a literal flash—but for some reason, they seem to hang around the edges of consciousness.
Good flash fiction, like all good writing, consists of the ability to communicate a large amount in a small space. The most famous example—perhaps apocryphal—is of Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
We didn’t get any stories quite that short, but several of the winners came in far under the word limit. From a pool of stories that ran the gamut, from the predictably mundane to the merely surprising to the truly gross, a three-member panel of SN&R judges selected the top-10 stories. All judging was anonymous. From these finalists, guest judge Jodi Angel (see sidebar) plucked the first-, second- and third-place winners.
And so we offer Sacramento’s shortest stories for your winter enjoyment.
Judge Jodi Angel on the finalists:
This was a very difficult contest to judge, and I am impressed with how these writers chose to approach the constraints of the word limit. Every word had to carry weight, but not at the expense of minimizing the general elements that make a story interesting. These stories had to attempt to be as deep as they were wide—and that takes a lot of creativity and finesse to accomplish.
These finalists wrote social commentaries, relationship comedies and pet stories. They wrote about bleak futures and romanticized pasts and fundamental loneliness that permeates most of our existence.
Judging is a subjective experience and there are no hard-and-fast rules to evaluate a story by—some will disagree with that—but when it all shakes out in the end, it comes down to an intangible feeling that some people call taste. All of the finalists produced great fiction, but, of those finalists, these are the three stories that stuck with me the most:
I read “The Sense of Relativity” and went out for some coffee and the entire time that I was driving and ordering and trying to get somebody to refill the half-n-half, I was thinking about this story. This story is about as “flash” as fiction can be—quick, hot, bright and out. There is a sense of sadness and reality in this story that defies its brevity. What is said in its few words is exactly right and exactly enough. I thought this story summed up our present existence in one pervasive image, and though it is hopeless and dark, it is an insightful and honest commentary. I was once told that you might finish with a good story, but a good story is never finished with you. I’m still thinking about this one—right down to the title.
The Sense of Relativity
Tavarus Blackmon, Sacramento
The professor had something new in mind, entering the classroom with a knife in his hand.
“Today will be different,” he said. “Today you will know what I have come to know.”
Cutting into his scalp and slicing into his brain, he divvied up his cortex one piece per student.
“I can’t use this in the real world,” someone said.
This story utilizes the fundamental elements of fiction to tell the brief tale of a landscape that we are all familiar with—and it does so with a creative edge. It brims with character, plot, dialogue, setting—so that when I get to the end I have to remind myself that this story is flash fiction. It gives me the illusion that I’m reading a much longer piece of work, and that is a testament to the writer’s talent of developing a complete story in very few words. “Wicker Wire” is a layered story that is complex beneath its surface and it is a story that made me think, and when a story makes a reader do some work, then it is accomplishing its job. The use of descriptive language is great, and the message of disaster and doom underscores all of its dark humor.Wicker Wire
Howard N. Coyle, Sacramento
“Dee … Scuss … Ting …” squealed Brett.
Loredo peered out from underneath his cowboy hat at the black man seated on the edge of the Thunder Valley Resort. “I have to know the truth.”
“Truth is Internet. Sacramento … not one hit, not a single pixel, and no files. Internet says no.”
“Exactly!” It only took a few moments for Loredo to cross the muck and reach the aged yet stout black man.
“You here for the truth?”
The old man hacked up a lunger and spat it near Loredo’s boots. “You scared, boy?”
Loredo shunned the phlegm. “Bodily fluids …”
“Truth is, they used to play a game where all manner of bodily fluids was left on hardwood.”
“That’s right. They played it in Sacramento.”
The old man raised a long, withered finger and pointed to the horizon.
“There’s … there’s nothing out there but water.”
“Arena Deal,” muttered the man. “First, the Arena Deal, and the Kings left town. Next the Revitalization Deal, and Business left town. Then the Capitol Deal and the State left town. Finally … Wicker Wire. Wicker Wire! Wicker Wire!”
It only took a few moments for Loredo to cross the muck and reach Brett. “Wicker Wire.”
Brett, Palm Pilot in hand, quickly accessed the Internet. “Wicker Wire. A 20th century blasting cable used in demolitions of earthen dams and levees.”
Loredo held a withered cardboard stub. From it, he read: “Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls, game seven, Arco Arena, May 15, 2007, Lower Bowl, Sect. 54, Row 5, Seat 35 …”
“Silence” is a story that covers a lot of ground quickly and is able to follow the development and subsequent maturity of a girl who will never know anything beyond her bleak existence. The story is matter-of-fact in its narrative, and it is that narrative tone that enables the reader to construct his or her own perceived answers to the “questions hidden in their hearts.” Despite the silence that surrounds this family, the writer is able to say a lot about these characters—the father’s reaction to the girl’s development is especially poignant—and the writing, like the family, reflects a lot of restraint. This story is driven by emotion, and that is not an easy thing to convey in a confined space—whether it is page space or the limited space of existence on an Iowa farm.
Barbara O’Donnell, Sacramento
A rural, 1910 Iowa farm. A widowed father, three teen-aged brothers and an 8-year-old sister. All living in silence. The girl, a Cinderella, learns to take care of the boys and man, washing, cooking, mending, cleaning. Daily work is mind-numbing brute labor from sunup to sunset as the farmer raises corn and oats, hogs and cattle. The girl cares for chickens, gathering eggs for sale in town. When darkness comes, the boys and man wash, eat supper, fall into an exhausted sleep. The girl works long into the night. No one has time or energy for conversation, and if they did, what would those husky boys and man have to say to the wee girl?
Then the girl is 17, pretty as her mother had been. It bothers the father, just the sight of her. He marries her off to a neighbor down the road, a rough man twice the girl’s age. She feels embarrassed, confused, frightened, but her father says, “It is time,” breaking the silence. The parson marries them in the parlor. After the ceremony, the men shake hands. The groom takes his bride down the road in a wagon.
At sunup the next day, the drawn-faced girl walks up her father’s lane, enters the house and begins laying out breakfast. Her astonished brothers and father come into the kitchen but fall to their bacon and eggs without comment. The family lives on as always, questions hidden in their hearts, silent, for the rest of their days on the Iowa farm.
Rosemary Tanfani, Sacramento
My situation is that I haven’t had sex since I got my dog, Otis. That was eight years ago.
Now I’ve met someone I like; someone I would like to know better.
“Don’t worry,” said Charlie. “It’s like riding a bike. You never forget.”
“Trust me,” said Abigail. “Everything will fall into place. Otherwise, you place it where it falls.”
She laughed, but I didn’t. Not funny, I thought. All these people with their advice. Why did she bring it up anyway? They don’t realize how embarrassed I am; how nervous I am about my situation.
Do I even tell him?
I see young people walking home from the high school. They’re talking on the street. Boys and girls are sneaking glances at one another. There’s lots of giggling.
If they only knew it never changes. When you’re older, you giggle, but you giggle inside so no one hears it. And your heart can still gush and throb.
I read of a woman who, in her sixties, took out a personal ad in a literary magazine and said she wanted to have great sex at least once in her life. She got plenty of offers. I always thought that was my ‘ace in the hole’—that I could hold on to that fantasy.
And now, I’m at his place. He is taking me in his arms. He looks into my eyes.
“My dear,” he says. “I must tell you … about my situation.”King Ulitas
Howard N. Coyle, Sacramento
This was to be the king’s last day. King Ulitas, the King of Sacramento. He was really just a low-level street thug plying his trade down in Alkali Flat. That was before the flood—you know, the big one. They say he had a vision, and when the levees broke he turned his vision into reality.
Diving on ATMs, swimming through jewelry stores and prying open water-logged vaults, Ulitas looted a city’s fortune in two nights. And no one even knew all of the crime hidden under thick black water. He scaled the Embassy Suites and set up his empire in the hotel’s penthouse.
FEMA and President Pelosi—what a joke! King Ulitas took care of the people. He fed them, housed them, handed out medicine and gave them hope. Hell, he had a whole floor just for abandoned animals. “Robin Hood? That white boy couldn’t nudge my sack,” he loved to say. The hotel filled, as did the ranks in his army. Mayor Maloof had to cut a backroom deal with the King. Sacramento was under 10 feet of water; King Ulitas shone like the morning sun.
Yet Ulitas’ reign was reaching its twilight. That backroom deal included me. I checked my weapons and saw him. Long live King Ulitas.
How the Lottery Changed My Life
Paul Gerowitz, Davis
My dog and I were at the park when she trotted over to where I was sitting, a little piece of green something hanging out of her mouth. A lizard, I thought. But, no, it was a dollar bill.
It was a warm day and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open, but I took the bill from Sally, wiped it on the grass and jammed it into my pocket.
One the way home, I stopped at the convenience store for coffee. Remembering the found money, I bought a lottery ticket, picking numbers at random. I told Sally, “If I win, half of this is yours.” She wagged her tail.
The next morning, I looked up the winning numbers in the paper. Sally was sitting up in her little bed, eagerly anticipating our win. She was that confident. But we didn’t win a thing.
After that, it just wasn’t the same between Sally and me. She got really depressed and just moped around the house. I could hardly stand to look her in the eye. We tried counseling, to no avail. We couldn’t seem to get past the disappointment. Finally, Sally just went off, never to return.
It’s been two years and I am finally starting to get back on my feet. But not a day goes by when I don’t think of my old dog, Sally, and the day that changed our life. I hope she’s happy, wherever she is.
Revealed— To No Avail
Reading my favorite stories and poems was like extracting teeth, or as futile as drying off in the rain. She just didn’t care.
So one day I had an idea: Read to her after sex.
The result was the same as the first time she saw me naked.
“That’s it?” she said.
Mary Terry-Pilcher, Sacramento
As I called Mrs. Wright and Oliver into the examination room, I recognized Oliver as the same hungry white bobtail cat I saw the night before at the local Quickstop. When I left the Quickstop, I placed an opened can of Kitten Buffet next to the two freshly emptied cans where the cat was standing. He looked at me gratefully and began eating.
I assured Mrs. Wright the doctor would be right in.
Minutes later, removing Oliver from the scale, I overheard Dr. Harris announcing that he’d gained one pound, two ounces.
“There must be some mistake, Doctor,” explained Mrs. Wright. “I only feed Oliver his special diet food, and he rarely eats more than a few bites.”
This Number Is Not On Your Registry
Aiesha Jones, Sacramento
“This number is not on your registry. Please call the Bush Rumsfeld Communication Department for authorization. You may try again with the proper sanction code,” asserted the emotionless computerized voice. As if to prove its power, at the last word, the line becomes a hissing buzz that hurts my ears, causing me to slam the phone down in frustrated pain.
How naive we were to believe them 10 years ago. Yes, it was only a decade ago when they patriotically promised and solemnly swore they were only accumulating a database for domestic security. Now we must register our allotted numbers—five personal and five business—with a central registry. We are unable to call anyone not on the list and these calls are metered and monitored. (It is illegal for citizens to make international calls.)
I must hurry to call the Bush Rumsfeld Authority Department—commonly known as BRAD—before 9 p.m., when all civilian phones automatically switch to emergency-only status. The new number is red-coded, so it’ll only take eight hours to get an authorization. I hope it’s sooner; the pain in my wisdom tooth is starting to throb more often and with increased intensity. I have had to increase the amount of Code Yellow pills to be comfortable. It is the only medication the government issues with few restrictions through its medical plan—the pills numb and deaden.
I need a glass of water to swallow; they are extremely bitter.
Richard Winter, Rescue
But Jim’s glory years were many years ago, and so few remembered his seasons with the Dodgers. He loved to speak at Rotary father-son lunches or to throw out the first ball of the Little League season, but those invitations rarely came now, just as the appearances with TV sportscasters vanished long ago.
Donna’s eye for ’70s fashions made her retro clothing store a moderate success, enough to let her get by since her husband left her for a woman who was younger and, well, Donna had been head cheerleader and homecoming queen, so one could not say the hussy was prettier. Ah, her high-school years! Nothing since had compared.
Donna went into the sports-memorabilia shop next door, seeking help with a light bulb, though she had noticed Jim’s letterman’s jacket and vintage Corvette. One thing led to another, and soon they were the “it” couple of the strip mall. They were perfect for each other.
The Caribbean cruise could not have been better—or worse. The food was divine, the dancing magical, and those sunsets! But the conversation never quite clicked. Donna always talked about her high-school years and usually changed the subject when Jim brought up the Dodgers. On the last moonlit night, as she talked about the senior prom yet again, Jim decided she was a hopeless has-been trapped in her past. The ring stayed in his pocket. Smiling politely, his thoughts drifted off to the second game of the ’71 playoffs.