Take a walk on the dark side

Our Flash Fiction contestants wallowed in morbidity. So let’s read the winners, shall we?

SN&R Illustration By Pat Barrett

SN&R’s 2007 Flash Fiction Contest, our third (well, fourth, if you count the second round of last year’s contest) brought us roughly a hundred entries, two-thirds of which came in through our Web site. Fortunately, we did not suffer from any of last year’s technical glitches, and our in-house panel of well-qualified—and anonymous—judges selected the 10 finalists.

We sensed some themes emerging this year. Death and dying seemed to weigh heavily on many writers’ minds. Perhaps it’s the season, and if we scheduled the contest for spring, we’d get all sorts of birth and rebirth stories. More likely, though, it’s just that writers tend to be a little morbid. We lean that way because so many of the stories also involved some sort of tragic ending for, of all things, a small, furry animal of the feline family. Yep, we got a bunch of cat-haters this year.

Once Fluffy, Miss Kitty and Toonces (oops! The in-house judges were supposed to be anonymous, weren’t they?) had eliminated all the felinazi prose, we were left with a range of styles and themes. Among our finalists were: an ecologically minded meditation on insect development; existential ruminations on both a jacket and a computer’s “undo” quick key; hobnobbing with the gods; end-of-life choices for both humans and gymnosperms; an afterlife proposition that sounds like a fine party; and, oh, yes—how terrible it would be to become a “cat lady.”

We turned our finalists over to Bradley W. Buchanan (see “Judge read, not dread,” page 27), and these are his comments and choices for first, second and third place. This is what he had to say about this year’s entries:

“I commend the finalists for their brevity. I know, that’s the whole idea of the Flash Fiction contest, but in a month when I must read more than 100 student papers, I’m truly grateful for concision, even if it’s mandatory. I never got quite comfortable in my chair as I read these pieces, and yet at the end of some of them I felt a pleasant pang of surprise or recognition. Others I simply swung at repeatedly and missed. As someone who has entered many literary contests, I’d like to remind everyone that blaming the judge’s obtuseness is always valid.”

There’s your excuse. Now here are the winners:

First place: “The Jacket”

No one could recall who had left the old jacket on the coat rack in Oscar’s barbershop. It was charcoal-gray on the outside, with a garish orange lining. When a longtime customer was departing the shop, Oscar always pointed at the jacket and barked, “And take your damn coat with you this time or I’m gonna start charging a storage fee.”

The responses to this jibe were many: “Have it cleaned and pressed and maybe I will.” (To which Oscar always snapped: “Why should I pay to clean your nasty old jacket?”) “I’ll take it if there’s money inside.” (“Don’t you think I’d have pocketed it long ago?”) “You senile old fart, don’t you recognize your own jacket when you see it?” (To which Oscar’s response was usually obscene.)

Oscar cut hair at the same one-man shop for 54 years. The coat hung near the doorway for the last 20 or so. When Oscar died at 81, his friends held a wake for him next door at Al’s Saloon. They brought the jacket over from the barbershop and hung it on Al’s coat rack. “Get that nasty thing outta here!” Al snapped.

“I’ll take it if there’s money in it,” said Clay.

“Have it cleaned and maybe I’ll take it,” said Homer.

“Don’t you recognize your own jacket when you see it?” said Sam.

Sighing with resignation, Al grabbed hold of a whiskey bottle and poured a round of drinks for the house. Then he poured a double for himself.

Kevin Mims, Sacramento

The judge says: “The Jacket” spoke of the hackneyed urge to abolish the random and to invent instant continuity. It was like a well-worn but well-told joke, or a villanelle with a wry refrain. It also chose a subject of the right size and sort: something small but shared. I was (distantly) touched.

SN&R Illustration By Pat Barrett

Second Place: “Nymph”
Today on the river shore off B Street, the dragonfly larvae squirmed their way up the dry sand and baked their exoskeletons. Once hardened, they’d crack through their back, and, bit-by-bit, with each contraction, wiggle their gooey, soft bodies out into the open for all of life to begin its preying. In time, they’d expand and open their curled up wings.

We watched one go the whole way. The skinny little thing giving birth to itself took much longer than either of us expected. After 30 minutes, the shaking legs lost balance and the dragonfly toppled over. Derek put down his pinky, and soon the outstretched black limbs took hold—we could practically hear it call him “Mama.”

Another 20 minutes passed; dusk hovered and the newborn looked almost like a real dragonfly there on the end of a stick. Its outer self hardened and became iridescent enough to give us confidence that when we left, it may even survive into the night, depending on the wasps. They’d obviously been scavenging for hours and now buzzed around us, eyeing our little pup.

“Vultures,” I said. “They’re going to kill it,” Derek said as we did a sort of grapevine—the Hava Nagila—circling our little nymph to ward away the yellow striped carnivores. Clumps of wasps gorged on the blue-green creatures that had barely made it onto the sand. Ours stood by our toes, paralyzed, still moist in her stunning, brand new form.

Eve Imagine, Sacramento

The judge says: “Nymph” blinded me with science, then dazzled me with inchoate emotion. I felt its lack of explicit resolution was a snide commentary on the necessary incompleteness of Flash Fiction, on the arbitrariness of narrative language, on the depraved indifference of nature—well, no, not really, but I learned something about dragonflies.

SN&R Illustration By Pat Barrett

Third Place: “Undone”
Ctrl Z. The solitary, ghostly light of the monitor was the only break in the darkness, and like a moth to a candle he sat, glued. He’d just learned hotkeys—undo, as well as others—and now systematically deconstructed his files. Anything processed, Photoshopped, painted—undone.

And as he broke down the elements of his digital, Web-hosted, live-streaming cyber life, an odd thought crossed his mind. What if real life was this reversible? His shitty life would be a little better, that’s what.

His friends, too busy for him but not each other, forgotten. The answer that in second grade was wrong, the one everyone laughed at. Never happened. And that time he tripped, when everyone laughed. Undone, all of it.

Why stop there though—why not dig deeper? He knew his rooting reflex was weak at birth; he hadn’t breast-fed like most newborns. It was probably the cause of his allergies, his weak immune system in general, but no matter—it was undone now. While he was at it he could just swap out his own genes, just to give him that edge—he’d always been awkwardly scrawny. It wouldn’t take much, he just had to undo some things. His conception, for one.

Hours later they found him—limp, slack jawed, and cold—bathed in the glow of the monitor, the only light in the room.

Ian Rothrock, Sacramento

The judge says: “Undone” captured the self-annihilating ethereality of contemporary culture with grim aplomb. Its apocalyptic inevitability oppressed me, and yet I evaded its embarrassingly personal implications by awarding it third place instead of first. The overdone undertones of “Undone” were not its own doing, but they were, paradoxically, its undoing. You follow?

Here, in no particular order, are the rest of the 10 finalists in this year’s competition.

“The End In Denver, 1950”
The Rockies I will not pass. My right side jellies, and I know: stroke. In a sleeping car miles from the Mississippi, no hearts break. I’m almost dead as my snoring daughter, my first mistake, sways with the train. A growling lap dog senses my rapture, but folks won’t know until Salt Lake.

I’m pleased. People are shiftless these days. Souls do burn. I am a Southerner. I know this. The bone canyons fly by as my sight dims. A crass child twirls in the aisle; through a veil of silk, I watch her twirl away. A man coughs. These people fade as if left at the station, weighted with trunks and fancy baggage. I pull away.

At 79, I am on terms with the Lord. I’ve lost my teeth, two boys, and a finger. Now the painlessness. I’m grateful as it spreads. The train floats me. I see my iron bed, prayers over the red quilt, knees on the dirt floor I’ve always known.

Then Bess, my sister, I thought you died? She married a colored man and went to St. Louis. At 50, she fell under a street car. How I hated her. At least I have a few grandchildren to pass along. My man died 23 years past, but I am on terms with the Lord. He prays with me: may your journey be uneventful.

Allison Meraz, Sacramento

“Friday Night 9 p.m.”
She released a heavy sigh into the silence of the room. Her breath altered the air currents, triggering a succession of ripples out into the emptiness. Her bare feet padded softly into the kitchen, where she filled a kettle and put it on the stove. Gas hissed softly through the valve, its stench settling uncomfortably in her nostrils, before erupting into vibrant blue flame. She pulled a mug from the cupboard and opened a packet of tea, releasing thin ribbons of its earthy fragrance. She breathed it in; she was beginning to relax and her melancholy was ebbing outward so that she no longer felt herself drowning in it.

“Maybe I should get a cat,” she thought.

She recognized that she felt the numbness of isolation most acutely when she was home, where the absence of sound could ricochet off the walls and knock in her ears. The outside world, on the other hand, was filled with enough noise and softly pounding heartbeats to keep her demons at bay.

She quickly decided against a cat. There was no whiter flag than that of an old cat lady, and as hopeless as she sometimes felt, she was not ready to surrender herself to pity and loneliness. The siren call of the kettle rattled her from her thoughts, startling her so badly that she knocked her hand against the cup, sending it scraping across the counter. She pulled the kettle from the burner and turned the knob. The flame trembled and retreated.

Laura Norman

“Down in the Keys”
The sun had just set over Key Largo. Tommy and his little sister Patty sat on a bench in front of the restaurant. They were tired from the drive.

In the parking lot, their dad paced in front of his Cadillac, mercilessly smoking a Marlboro and gesturing toward the door of the restaurant. “Go on now. I’ll be right in.”

Tommy stood up. “Come on Pats.” He grabbed his sister’s hand, leaned into the weathered door and looked back. He saw his dad slide into the driver’s seat of the Caddie.

The restaurant was thick with the smell of fried shrimp. A large woman, the waitress, bent down and smiled. “My, aren’t you a couple of little darlings. Where’s your mama?”

Tommy frowned. “My Daddy’s in the car. He said you’re supposed to give us a table.”

“Well then that’s what I’d better do. Follow me sugar.” Tommy took the woman’s hand. She sat them in a booth. “How ’bout a couple of Cokes? Sound good?”

“Yes ma’am!”

Suddenly, what sounded like a firecracker popped outside. The waitress followed the cook out the door. Somebody screamed.

“What’s that Tommy?” Patty asked.

“I don’t know.” Tommy peered out the window. People were gathered around the Cadillac. The windshield glowed dark crimson beneath the street lamp. His dad’s head was tilted back and his eyes were closed. Tommy thought he looked peaceful.

Patty was drawing four stick figures on a paper placemat. A family. Tommy saw it and started to cry.

Paul M. Mann

“House Guest”
I welcomed you into our home with an embrace. It wasn’t just an ordinary hug, either. Both of my arms wrapped snugly around you and I lifted you off the ground. My family mirrored my own excitement at your arrival. My wife had already cleared a room for you to stay. My daughters had already searched the closet, finding you beautiful things to wear.

I must say you looked silly in that flashy new hat. As the weeks progressed, you seemed more and more like a part of our household. I would say you were a quiet and passive presence. But there was something very warm and special about you, too. We adored you. We laid gifts at your feet.

Eventually, our feelings changed. My youngest wanted you to stay, but you lost your sparkle. You were no longer vibrant. You were no longer relevant, to be frank. And you looked a little unhealthy, too. We didn’t want you just wasting away in our house. That would have been annoying to say the very least.

But you couldn’t just leave by yourself, could you? No, you couldn’t do anything for yourself anymore. So I had to do it. I had to get rid of you. Even with my oldest daughter’s help, you made quite a mess on the rug. We dragged your near-lifeless weight to the edge of the drive, and figured you were somebody else’s problem at that point.

After all, Christmas is over.

Danielle Best, Sacramento

We didn’t discourage representatives from the pantheon of religious doctrine from stopping by, but we also didn’t send out invitations. Nonetheless, there he was, in all his glory, sitting next to my sister and her family, in a white robe and sandals, a golden-brown mane cascading over his shoulders. As expected, he was polite and ate a meager portion. It was an unwritten rule, a given, that they were all welcome to pop in for a “short” visit; Buddha, Mohammed, Bacchus, and the rest.

I especially enjoyed it when some of the lesser-knowns made an appearance; their stories were always so outrageous, you couldn’t help but wonder. When we were young, he stopped by a lot, but as we grew his visits were less frequent and became more of an annoyance, an impediment to our daily bread. So it wasn’t really a surprise that he showed up, but more that he stuck around.

At first, he was quiet, but as the meal progressed, his voice rose above the din. The lesser-knowns—and Bacchus—decided that it was all too sobering, and snuck out through the kitchen. Before I knew, he was on his feet pointing a finger at all of us, except for my brother, whom he considered a lost cause. He wouldn’t even look at him.

They left early and in silence. He piled in the car between my sister and her husband, the kids in the back. On his lap, the cold dish of uneaten brownies she made.

Max Boyd, Sacramento

SN&R Illustration By Pat Barrett

“The Wicker Thief”
Sometime during the night, an alarming amount of wicker was stolen from the backyard of local businessman Josh Hemming. Curiously, a priceless collection of solid gold garden gnomes was left untouched.

“Why violate a man like that?” Detective Pike asked, shaking his head sadly. “Why take his wicker?”

Eddie Markham from forensics snapped a couple of pictures of the scene. “Someone had it in for Hemming. Maybe he had enemies.”

“No,” said Josh Hemming, stepping into the yard. “No, I’m loved by all.”

Markham shrugged. “Then I’m out of ideas.”

“I’m not.” Pike spun around. “How badly do you want it back? The tables, the chairs, the benches, the swings; how much is it all worth to you?”

Hemming quickly ran the numbers. “About $90.”

That reward, the largest on record for a lawn furniture burglary, was quickly claimed by a local pawnbroker. “I should have known it was stolen,” he admitted, handing Pike the thief’s address. “Secondhand wicker is a cutthroat business.”

Detective Pike arrested the wicker thief at his downtown penthouse, closing the book on scores of lawn chair robberies in the county. “Help me understand,” he said.

“I can’t,” the wicker thief said. “I just wanted to be the best at something. The best in the world.”

“Well, that you are,” Pike admitted, snapping the handcuffs shut. “But with you behind bars, patio furniture owners everywhere can feel safe again.”

“I doubt that. He’s almost fully trained now.”

“Who?” Pike asked.”

“My apprentice.”

William Doonan, Sacramento

Photo Illustration by Pat Barrett

Sir the storm came outta nowhere didn’t come outta nowhere the lookout was asleep who was that lookout that bellyachin’ shipwrecked bloke we rescued Pipe the watches strike the royals it’s a snorter it’s a stinker look alive sir the main halyard’s busted the shroud’s alow Avast Belay those lines Belay ’em I say sir the sea’s astern the sea where’s that bellyachin’ sonofabitch I’ll kill ’em the sea’s upon us sir look astern look astern

The sea runs silent beneath the storm. Bubbles rise; the ship descends. A young man, breathing water for air, says, “This air’s stale.” The young man touches bottom and finds cobblestones. He sees a corner shop with neon flashing. “Davy’s Grill. Girls. Rum.”

An old man flings open the door: “Hallo! Step right in. Music, rum, girls—get ’em here, get ’em free.”

The young man scowls. “I dislike loud music; rum upsets my stomach; I could catch something from those girls.”

“Say what, young sailor?”

“I wish to complain.”

The old man rolls his eyes: “Another one!” He twirls his finger. An inverse whirlpool sucks the young man upward.

The young man rides a raft, alone between horizons, blistered by the sun, parched by the sea. A far sail appears. The young man stands, raises a hand to his forehead. “A whaler,” he says. “Hundreds of ships on the sea and I get a whaler.”

Larry E. Graham, Sacramento