A Note about Voice and Mexican Lit

Thank you to Two Hawks Quarterly for publishing my short story, “The Space of Noise,” which I wrote from a generous friend’s rooftop garden in Mexico City.

I wanted to make a note about diverse voices in fiction. Because I’m a white guy taking a different perspective here, and there’s a long, somewhat tired history of gringo writers romanticizing about Mexico. Historically, many of these books take up shelf space instead of sharing it. And if you’re skeptical of this history; if you’re skeptical of white writers attempting Mexican styles and perspectives in English, then that’s good. I’m skeptical, too. I have lots of questions about how this works. I don’t have all the answers either. But I do have one answer. It’s my opinion that we would all greatly benefit from reading more Mexican fiction (and not Jeanine Cummings). It will make you a better thinker, person, reader. Mexican fiction has the gemmed capacity to hold a deep contradiction together in two clasped hands and let the reader peek through the fingers to see it. It is and it isn’t. This is one of the great gifts of living in México and reading Mexican literature. Forgive me the generalization, but the Mexican fiction I’ve enjoyed best doesn’t strive to clarify the messiness of life; instead it illuminates the mess with real color, moving lines, and rich depth. And so in that spirit, if you liked my story, but want to read more real stuff by real Mexican writers, here is a list of a few favorites of mine. These stories have helped me understand myself better and also pushed me as a reader and writer. I’m looking forward to growing this list in coming years.  

Guadulupe Nettel – Natural Histories / El matrimonio de los peces rojos (some of my favorite short stories worldwide)

Valeria Luiselli – Faces in the Crowd / Los ingrávidos

Yuri Herrera – anything but especially Kingdom Cons/ Trabajos del Reino (it’s the only narco lit I’ll go for)

Cristina Riviera Garza – Anything!

Carlos Fuentes – Aura and The Old Gringo or anything!

Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction – edited by Álvaro Uribe, translated by Olivia Sears (this is a bilingual edition and crash course in modern Mexican short story writing)

Also Chicana writers – Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzaldúa (although she’s academic, not fiction)

There are so many more beyond this. Buy their books. Grow your own list, too. And thanks for listening.

2020 Update – New Site Coming

First, I am creating a new author’s website. It feels time for an update. Stay tuned.

Second, a brief update on my writing life: This past year I shifted my focus from short stories and food & drink articles to nature writing and children’s books. I’ve been a teacher and environmentalist for a decade, and these two genres make the most sense to me right now. I’m devoting more and more energy to them. I will be attending University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities program to dive deeper into the study of human’s place in the natural world, and I plan to emerge with a working concept for environmental picture books about trees and related programming. I look forward to sharing my work with audiences in the future.

Writing Life in 2019

It’s been awhile since I put anything here. Here’s a rundown of life and where to find my work:

I still teach part-time, but for most of the day I write. I’m writing short stories, essays, and working on manuscripts for children’s books. This stuff should make it out into the world eventually, but it’ll take some time. It’s a slog, but I’m optimistic. I’m also writing about food and beer as I go. You can find my recent work at DCist, FSR, QSR Magazines among others.  Check my published stories page for a selection of my work. Or follow me on Medium for posts of my less polished work–the stuff I’m clearing off my desk but also care about too much to dump in the trash bin like this (who is American?) and that (Saints). I don’t use Twitter much, but I’m trying it a bit. You can find me @samwriteteach. Beyond that, you’re most likely to find me in the parks gazing at trees. Love, Sam

Pissing at the Women’s March, the Inner Loop, and relevant stuff.

In January I took many notes about the inauguration, protests, and the Women’s march.  I had plans to write multiple essays.  But I’m a teacher; I got busy; I wrote only one. I started using medium to share my work in a more accessible and expedient form. First, I posted a New Year’s Note about some personal reflections after a trip to Cuba and then I shared small personal essay about Pissing at the Women’s March.

You can read the essay here on Medium.

In March I read a revised draft of the essay at the Colony Club for the Inner Loop Literary Reading Series.  DC is cool like that–there are lots of people trying to strengthen the literary community by creating space for writers to hit the mic, from Busboys and Poets to Upshur Street books–Courtney and Rachel of Inner Loop are doing it without the brick and mortar home-base, and they’re rotating many new and aspiring voices into the literary fold on a monthly basis.

The audience enjoyed my reading (I practiced a lot, writers should never hit the mic cold), and in April, InnerLoop generously listed me as their “Writer of the Month” on their website.  Subsequently, the inaugural (first issue to be released in fall?) Passenger Magazine interviewed me about the Writer’s Life.  Take a look. I tried not to be too boring.  Enjoy it if you can, and thanks for reading any or all of this.

Lastly, I’ve recently retired from full-timeteaching, so I plan to write, read, write, publish, and post more often.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015, Round 2

Dear NYC Midnight readers, I’ve posted my story below.  I do it with reluctance and apprehension. I would rather engage any genre aside romance because many of its genre traits rely on a sort of expected outcome and good feeling.  I tried to get around it, and I don’t think I succeeded.  I had a few creative ideas but they weren’t very romantic, and they led me to 1994 cinema (all movie references in this story hail from that great year).  I don’t love this thing, but I’m sharing it anyway.  If you don’t know what NYC Midnight is… you can find out more here.  The gist is that you have 48 hours to write a 1,000 word story with genre/location guides. (group-specific).  Here were mine.

Genre: Romance        Location: Movie Theater       Object: Skateboard.

Hope you enjoy.  Please leave feedback on the forum post if you’re inclined.

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There are many kinds of love just like there are many kinds of movies and many kinds of movie theaters.  Some theaters show independent stuff or foreign flicks.  My theater is committed to the 90’s.  It was the best decade for cinema, hands-down.  In the month of June, this month, we play only ’94.  Why? Because I’m in love with ’94.  It was the year Jim Carrey gave us three (!) comedies, topped by Ace Ventura.  The year of Time Cop and The Lion King.  The year Shawshank Redemption wasn’t even good enough to win the big one [see: Forest Gump].  The year I met my wife.  Rita.

The difference between my theater and others is like the difference between loving someone and being in love.  Love is a verb, an action, it’s a steady thing; but being in love is prepositional, relational, hopeless—it’s the quick-sinking quality of being irreversibly lost in a feeling too deep to climb out of.  Like how James Spader loves Mili Avital (even though she’s an alien) [see: Stargate], while Brandon Lee is in love with Rochelle Davis [see: The Crow].  It’s how Rita loves me, while I’m in love with Rita.

Our love is a quiet thing.  We eat meals together, we rub each other’s feet, we make love in traditional positions with satisfaction, and we always sleep well after.  It’s nice, but it’s not romance.  Not like it is in the movies in ’94.

I think about it at my one-screen theater.  There’s never a big group, but it’s a loyal group, loyal to that last great decade of film before Transformers ruined everything. There’s Mike and Ryan, a pair of gay skaters who rest their skateboards wheels-up on their laps like dinner trays.  There’s Lily, who loves the 90’s so much she never stopped wearing flannel. There’s Winston, who cries every time because he knows who dies.  We watch together, cry, whisper, even clap at good parts, and it’s enough to drive new customers away sometimes. They don’t know I’ve been studying the star actors, to see how they make their co-stars fall in love. To make Rita in love with me the way Julia Ormond is for Brad Pitt [see: Legends of the Fall].

Tonight I’m screening Speed.  Mike, Lily, Winston, we’re all here. I study Keanu. I imagine Rita as Sandra Bullock, steering an explosive bus.  We all sit together in hopeful tension while Keanu and Sandra embrace in a steamy double helix, the exploding thing that brought them together now smoldering in the background.

That night I put a ball of tin foil in the microwave while Rita scoops ice cream.   When the microwave pops with a conductive bang, I grab Rita and roll with her across the linoleum, away from the mini-explosion.  I try to kiss her while the microwave smokes behind us.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Being romantic.”

“Why?”

“I want you to be in love.  Like Forest Gump and Jenny.”

“This is romance?”  She sneaks out from under me and then looks at the microwave

“Fix it,” she says and leaves.

Next we screen Wolf.  We watch Jack Nicholson wrestle with his writing and a full moon, symbols of passion.  A young girl falls for Jack; she doesn’t know his passion is uncontrollable; she doesn’t know he’s a werewolf.  Not until he bites her.  We all clap while Winston cries.

In the bedroom that night Rita makes quiet love to me.  It’s easy and soft, not like I might be driven deep and violently into the earth, but like I could lay under her quilted flesh for mortal eternity, safely, in our private unrecorded world.  I sit up.  I kiss her neck.  I sink my teeth into her and howl.

“What are you doing?”

“Making love to you.”

“What kind of love is that?”

She gets off and rolls away from me.  I wonder if this part of our plot, the rising tension to something louder.

The next night it’s The Chase.  We watch Kristy Swanson go from scared innocence to a rebel in love as she straddles Charlie Sheen and kisses him, obstructing his focus during a high-speed getaway from the law. It’s exciting, illicit, accidental.

In the morning I ask Rita to go for a drive with me.

“No,” she says.

‘Why not?”

“Because this isn’t a movie, and this isn’t what it means to be in love.” I feel like Lloyd Christmas [see: Dumb and Dumber], walking down the road with his head down, the romantic climax I envisioned now lost.

“What’s playing tonight?” she asks.

Pulp Fiction.”

“You’re watching a lot of movies with men in control.  Then the women fall in love. I don’t think it’s how it works with us.  I’m coming tonight.”

“Why?”

“To show you what kind of love we have.”

Everyone is there, skateboards on laps, flannel shirts, Winston’s ready-made tears. They whisper to each other.  The movie starts, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in love, so in love that together they commit armed robbery over breakfast.

“This is love,” my wife says.  I look at her.

“Not the movie,” she says, “the moviegoers.  Everyone sits together.  They come here every time, even though they’ve seen it all before.  They don’t just love the film.  They love the company.”

She’s right.  There are many kinds of love, just like there are many great movies in 1994.   But our love is a good love.  It’s not explosive, it doesn’t speed down the highway, it isn’t high stakes like big-money poker [see: Maverick]. It’s holding hands in my little movie theater.  We stay this way, Rita and I, quiet together, loving, in love.  We watch John Travolta bury a hypodermic needle into the chest of Uma Thurman and bring her back to life.  Everyone claps, even Winston.  Then Rita leans over and bites my shoulder, just a little bit, with her teeth.  I resist a howl.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2015, Challenge #1

Dear NYC Midnight flash fiction readers: I’ve posted my story below.  I usually love the twisted game of genre writing in a surprise location, but I struggled to unhinge myself in the fairy tale world, although I did have some fun paralleling a favorite German fairy tale… I’m sure you’ll be able to guess it.   For non-competing readers who are confused about what the hell I’m talking about, check out the challenge details...  I do this for fun and writerly exercise, not for publishing purposes, although last year I got a good one out of the experience that I’m still shopping and polishing.   Anyways, enjoy!

Location: Senior Citizen Home,  Genre: Fairy Tale,  Object: Disco Ball

Synopsis: Hansen and Grenadine are lost in the city… until they find a house made of pills.

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Hansen and Grenadine

Once upon a time there dwelt in a poor suburb four generations living under a single asphalt roof.  The husband was worse than a miller, for he was a salesman of bleached grains, and he did his best to support his parents and his children and his children’s children and to maintain the illusory idea possessed by old royalty—that wanting and having were the same thing.  Or at least he wanted his grandchildren to think so.  But sales were down.  People were scared of gluten.

“What’s going to happen to us?” the husband said.  “There’s hardly food to feed us, let alone the children.  And now little Ivan says he’ll eat only red meat and no carbohydrates.  How can we feed little Ivan steaks when we can hardly live off the bread I sell?”

“There’s too many of us,” the wife said with a shrewd heart. “We’ll have to get rid of your parents.”

“Nursing home?”

“Too depressing. We’ll drive them to the city and leave them.”

“That I cannot do.”

“You simple clodpate!  Would you rather us all die of starvation?! Don’t you know aging and dying are the same?  Food is for the living.”  The wife repeated the argument many nights until he gave in.

The grandfather, Hansen, had listened secretly from another room.  He devised a plan and collected white pebbles in his pocket to mark the way home. Grenadine, his wife, scolded him.

“As if years of hoarding weren’t enough, now you have to gather all of Mother Nature’s affects and claim them as your own.”

“They had a purpose.”

“What purpose?”

“I can’t remember.”

That evening they drove Hansen and Grenadine into the city.

“We finally bought you medicine,” the wife said.  She told them to go into the pharmacy.  Then they drove off.  There was no medicine.

Hansen forgot how they got there.  Grenadine cried and gathered Hansen’s hand and then together they wandered the urban wilderness.   Everyone ignored them, for folks had grown used to lost seniors in town, and they were too busy to help the aging, since they were also the dying.

They wandered past five dialysis units and onto a street that was dark except for a carousel of light coming from the window.  There was a sign across the door that read: The Senior Citizen Candy Home.

They knocked on the door.  It opened right away.  A young doctor had been waiting.

“Come in, come in, no harm shall befall you here,” he said.  Hansen and Grenadine entered.  There were others, dancing under the turning colors of a golden disco ball.  They were old but everyone moved with the vim of an earlier time.  They were on drugs.  The house was made of drugs.  The walls were medicine, pharmacological bricks of prescription bottles, liquid morphine dripping from faucets, ointments instead of paint, crushed-up amphetamines floating the air like dust.  Hansen and Grenadine joined them.  Hansen plucked yellow pills of Cialis from the floorboards and Grenadine soaked her face in damp bath towels of ether.  The doctor took notes.  And then he hit a button on the golden ball.  All the noise and color stopped, and he ushered everyone to bed.

Hansen and Grenadine slept well, but Hansen slept too well.  The young doctor had fed all the residents Stultifian to kept them sedated in chemical restraint.  Except Grenadine which he gave an array of soporifics so she would aid him in somniferous servility.

Gruesomely, he removed the best body parts of his residents.  The hands of a farmer, the eyes of a pilot, the toes of a rock-climber.  He sold them, as it had become fashionable to decorate European homes with the taxidermy extremities of American decedents.

Grenadine noticed the doctor inspecting Hansen’s hands.  She also found the white pebbles in his pocket.  She put them in her own and the next day she cunningly swallowed them instead of the pills under the doctor’s lazy supervision. That night she tied rubber bands around Hansen’s wrists under his sleeves to cut off circulation.  In the morning the doctor saw his hands, now blue.  He took angry notes.  After three days he tore up the paper and said aloud, “I’ll just have to take his feet instead.”  He had decided to do away with Grenadine, too, who had a sound mind instead of good feet.

He called to her, not knowing she wasn’t medicated.

“Grenadine, I want you to take this and rest.  You’ve worked hard enough today.”

“Doctor, don’t you know I can’t swallow red pills.  I’m Danish.  We’re a superstitious people.  We can’t do red.”

“Don’t be simple!  It’s just a color.”

“Can you show me?”

He placed the pill on his tongue to show her.  She pounced and covered his mouth with her hand and tipped his head back until he swallowed.  She was quite strong when she wanted to be.  The doctor panicked and fainted.  He would die on the floor.  Grenadine woke Hansen with a dose of Stimalerta.  They took the golden ball and left.

On the way out, Hansen ate the mailbox which was made of Hippocamporol.  He remembered everything. He remembered how he first met Grenadine, how his brother used to punch him in the ear in his sleep, what he had for breakfast a week ago, the taste of hard drugs when he was a teenager, and the soft addiction of real affection as an old man in love, when aging wasn’t dying but a sweet and stubborn way of living.  He remembered the way home.

The husband was relieved with joy to see them again.  Little Ivan was sick from salmonella, and the wife had died from a rotten case of dyspepsia.  Hansen and Grenadine used stolen pills to cure little Ivan and sold the rest for a fortune, so that wishing and wanting really did become the same thing–unlike aging and dying.   At night they danced under the golden ball until little Ivan lost it in a pond.

A New Year’s Note

I don’t usually share the more personal stuff I write in my notebooks, but I was truly and unexpectedly inspired at the first 2015 midnight this year.  I wrote this note at the same spot that inspired it, along the river levee in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a spot that’s been pretty dear to me for awhile, and made even better by afternoon sun.  I thought I would share it with whoever is interested.  I’d be curious if you have any reactions or something to share.

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It’s true I’m an optimist, but optimism is not a routine for me; I don’t mark every occasion by looking forward.  A habit of positive forecasts would bankrupt what I consider true and authentic optimism, which isn’t the blind stuff of expectancy, but the allowance of auspice to appear, gripping it, looking it in the face, even kissing it and admitting its possibility and potential.

2015 began with a flood of good feeling.   I had been with old friends in Mid-City, a neighborhood mapped in my heart.  I heard Megan and Porter announce their engagement, a thing that always makes a family of friends stronger.

An hour later I was in a throng of locals and tourists.  I was drinking whiskey in Jackson Square while Terance Simien performed on stage.  I dance-sang to a pair of his songs that sometimes get played out too much in New Orleans, but were perfect for a not-so-prodigal son seeking some spiritual nutrition, a real-time antidote to the overgrowth of nostalgia, in the minutes before our calendars would start over.

I left the show, urinated in a daiquiri shop that I have never patronized but often relieved myself in, and then pushed through the crowd on the riverwalk onto the rocks on the levee of the Mississippi River as the Fleur De Lis rose to a spat of fireworks marking the first seconds of our new year.  The West Bank’s horizon glittered with fireworks, and the river barges began to fire off too.

Maybe it was the music, the booze, the lingering joy of another engagement between friends, but I was hit by that flood of good feeling, the auspice of a good year.   Fireworks most often bore me, but this time were enchanting.  The reds especially lit the river, and the symbolism—while not understood completely—was not lost on me entirely.  Many men and women have looked at the Mississippi River for a sign, it’s like watching the history of our continent flow by; your identity, perched static on its banks, while insignificant and anonymous in the river’s timeline, is nevertheless included.

The smoke hung over the many people along the bank, and the fireworks lit their faces.  We all see something different from the lights of the New Year.  For some, it’s just a show, but others see fortune, an auspicious augury. If we’re lucky, we get to choose what we see.  For me, I choose uncertainty, but also good fortune in the uncertainty and its openness, not because I’m superstitious but because my optimism in the unknown has been renewed.  Never has my life’s directions felt more uncertain, and I sense other adults feel the same way these days.  At almost thirty, there is a growing proclivity to worry about this.  Instead, I’m ready to celebrate it and embrace the unexpected gifts of the year.  I wonder if others feel the same.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge #4

I am happy to have the chance to submit a story for the final round of this challenge, which started with about 1,000 participants and is down to 25.  I don’t think my final story is a winner, but I had fun writing this one, so that’s enough for me.  It was inspired and influenced by the short fiction and style of Donald Barthelme (The Emerald, The Zombies, etc).  Thanks for reading!  Note: White space doesn’t format well on the blog so I’ve inserted lines to show breaks, which unfortunately has a slightly different effect…

Genre: Open     Location: Iceberg     Object: Lighter

The iceberg was proof of something more—the impossible.  It split from a large glacier in Greenland a year ago, survived the seasons and the warmer currents of the mid-Atlantic, and then drifted into the Gulf of Mexico a summer later.   Still it stands, a long tabular—unmelted, unmelting, proof.

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“Proof of what?” asked Eric.

“God,” said Juan.

“You mean science.”

“Why not call it what it is. A miracle.”

“You believe it?”

“I do.”

“People are heading there in boats.”

“To do what?”

“Live on it.  It’s the new promised land.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Not just Christians, lots of folks.”

“And you?”

“The leader, her name is Kale.”

“Like the leafy greens?”

“And she’s beautiful.”

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It’s true.  I’m beautiful.  Follow me.  We can live here on the miracle which promises to always be a miracle.  We’ll eat raw fish and swim in warm waters and run naked across ice, and I swear you’ll see it, too.

            And if you don’t believe in God, that’s fine. I’ll show you.  You see where that long quiet range of ice meets the fat blue sky.  That’s God.  This is her iceberg.  I declare it: Godberg.

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            First rule.  No fire.  Fire melts ice and only God has the right to melt her gift.

Second.  No digging.  Not deep anyway. Just because this thing is a miracle doesn’t mean it’s not fragile.

Third rule.  Every morning we run naked to the white flag in the center of Iceberg—a featureless place Kale calls sacred for what it lacks–so we can feel Godberg against our skin, but also because people like running naked with Kale.

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The rest is just respect.

“What’s over there?”

“Where?”

“The other end of Godberg.”

“I don’t know.  But they have loud instruments.”

“I think it’s a marching band.  That’s what it sounds like.”

“Is music allowed?”

“I guess, but they’re breaking other rules.”

“Like what?”

“At night, you can see the flicker of their fires.”

“They’ll sink us.”

“They just might.”

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The musicians marched with band instruments made from fur and wood instead of brass, trumpets that shot fire, trombones that blew little winds, and at night they banged on the ice with iron sticks.  Sometimes they paraded around the edges of Godberg, dancing, fighting and shouting, even pushing someone in the water for being dull.  We hear that’s how Juan drowned, when he slipped away to join them one night.  The quietude of Godberg was diminished.

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There’s a man holding a pick and hacking at the ice. He’s got cigarettes tucked in both ears and a furry trumpet strapped over his shoulder.  He’s crouched by the flagpole in that stretch of ice between the two villages where you can stand on a not-so-clear day and see no water and think you are alone in a world full of only space and light, without color or sound.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Making art.”

“This is art?”

“I think so.”

“What are you all doing here?”

“We made too much noise on the mainland.  They didn’t like it. So we came here to make it.”

“I feel like you don’t respect the miracle.”

He swung his trumpet around and played a few notes, blew smoke out of the bell; it turned into a small fire and the flame made a song, a brass lighter of music.  He lit one of his cigarettes with a note.

He held the trumpet’s flame against the ice.

“See?  It doesn’t melt.”  And then the first rule meant nothing.

“And what if you find something?”

“Where?”

“Below the ice.”

“Like what?”

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A day later they found something. The musicians brought it to Kale.

“What is it?”

“A woman.”

“Is she alive?”

“Doubt it.  Will you take her?”

“Why us?

“We just feel like you’re better equipped for this.”

They put her in an open box in Kale’s capsule-home and let her thaw.  When she was done thawing, she woke up.  Another miracle or maybe just the same one.

“Who are you?” Kale asked.

“I feel like a Rachel.”

“You were frozen for I don’t know how long.”

“A long time.  God is good.”

Kale beamed.  A believer, freed from the ice, Godberg’s virgin daughter.

“I have more friends down there,” Rachel said.

Kale hesitated.  They’d have to break the second rule.  But then maybe that’s why she was here, to dig these holes, to liberate the people frozen in Godberg.

So they dug them out, children, a small dog, someone’s long-ago grandparents.  They found other things, too, jewelry, a rocking horse, a tuba.

“Hide it from the band,” Kale said.

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Winter came and it got colder, the days less yellow, and the naked runs to the flagpole started to feel more like labor than love, especially because it was surrounded by bad art.  Kale allowed small fires.  Then folks noticed Rachel wore her boots during runs.

“I was frozen for a long time.  I’m tired of being cold.  God understands.”

And then the only rule left was respect.

One evening, Kale walked to the edge of Godberg, and sat along that other mystic border where cold ice touches warm sea.

Rachel found her and sat next to her.

“How was it?” Kale asked.

“What?”

“Being frozen for centuries.”

“Cold.  But quiet.  You can live forever that way.”

Kale nodded.

“You did good, Kale.  We owe you everything.”

The two women embraced then walked back to the village holding hands.  That night they dug a hole and put Kale in it, in the center of Godberg, so she could see both ice and sky but never have to feel a fire or hear a bass drum again.

Then they dug another hole, to get at something shiny in the ice, a new drum kit.  They had a party that night with a bonfire because nobody could hear them out beyond the permanent edges, and they could make as much noise as they wanted.  Rachel assured them that’s what Godberg was for.  Everybody was invited.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge #3

I did not post this story to the NYC forum at first because I was admittedly embarrassed about the story.  Then I saw the results and was surprised to see I earned 5th place in my group.  This made me think I was being too hard on myself, and that maybe this story deserves more attention.  I would love for you to read it and offer feedback.

I worked all weekend on a different story and then with three hours left until deadline on Sunday I trashed it and wrote this one.  It’s not as clean as I want, but it’s a lot better than that other thing I wrote.  Harrison Bergeron was the inspiration here.

The rules, 48 hours to write a 1,000 word story using the following guidelines:

Genre: Science Fiction       Location: Health Club        Object: Welcome Mat

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Only the healthy are allowed in the Office of Well-Being’s Be Well Health Club.  There’s a welcome mat out front.  You take off your shoes and stand on it.  It measures your vitals, storage fat, even your physical beauty—all set by Office standards.   If the numbers are green you go in.  You do healthy person stuff.  Like run on treadmills and read books and drink pink tea.  The Club is where the Office of Well-Being keeps all the healthy things.  The rest of us go to the bar.

I don’t want to go to the bar.  So I stand outside the Club and watch.  The walls are clear glass, and I can see everyone in all their fitness.  People doing exotic stretches.  People petting trained dogs.  People reading books.  Real books.  The Office of Well-Being says books are healthy for you, that’s why they’re restricted to the Club, to keep the healthy people healthy.

I’m not thin, but I’m not fat either.  I can see my feet; I can run a mile.  I’m strong.  But the mat registers me unfit.  If I could get into Club just once, I could stay in there, I could stay fit.

I wait outside for Helena.  She is beautiful and fit.  She speaks four languages, she’s kind to animals.  She’s compassionate too.  Each night she stops to chat with me before she goes inside.   I always hope the numbers go green for me, so I could follow her. I think she hopes it, too.

“Hey, Helena.”

“Hey, Lewis.”

“You going to make it tonight?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Try.”

I take my shoes off and stand on the mat.  The screen flashes my numbers, those little things that make me who I am. I want to hide them with my feet.  Red numbers.

“I bet you get it next time,” she says.  Her numbers go green.  Everyday she is healthier than the day before, and I wonder if she’ll ever get to that place of perfection where you can’t improve anymore.

Down the street I can hear music and shouting.  It’s the bars.  The people who gave up.  They smoke and argue, rub each other’s bellies to celebrate the forfeiture of their own betterment.  They don’t exercise because they don’t care.  They don’t read because they don’t have books.  Except Peter.   He’s a drunk, but he’s also thin and literate.  He says he used to go the Club but gave it up.  Some say he makes his own books in private, but he denies it. The Office would take them away.

Peter told me what he remembers.  That they practice old dance moves in little ballrooms upstairs.  That they have potted trees and plants to keep the air fresh.  That they don’t allow beer.

I have to get fit.  I run toward the river, past the nice homes.  All the lights are on.  People have private gyms, their own little clubs where they exercise.  They power their homes this way.  I keep running, under the old light rail into my part of town.  No electric lights.  No cars.  People sit in the dark because they can’t make their own power.  I arrive at the river.

Peter told me the river runs a different course then it used to.  That it’s moved many miles over many years until man fixed it in place.  That’s why it floods when it rains, but only in our part.

I run back to the health club. I’m sweating, sticky, and my hair is matted.  I’m sure I look unfit, but I feel lighter.

I see Helena through the glass.  She’s on the ski machine, gliding in virtual place while she reads a book in Swiss-French.   I see a man talking to Helena. He wears a green uniform, carries a club in his belt.  He’s security, the guy who makes sure nobody “unfit” sneaks in.  He rubs her back while she fake-skis.

I take my shoes off and stand on the mat.  Red Numbers.

I go to the bar.  They clap me on the back, welcome me into the candlelight.  Peter is drunk in the corner.

I get a shot of slime.  It’s fermented, filtered river water.  Poor man’s drink, the kind that doesn’t go down your throat but up your head and makes a steel fog up there that shakes you.  I swallow it.

“What are you doing tonight?” Peter asks

“Trying to get fit.”

“Give it up,” he says.

“How do I trick the mat?” I ask.

“You don’t.”

Inside the Club I hear soft classical music.  They must be dancing upstairs.  Thin couples waltzing on parquet and breathing potted plant-air.

I make my move.

The mat doesn’t rip easy. My numbers might be red, but I know I’m strong.  I pull hard at the edges.   Sparks flicker from the severed wires.  I tear it out and fold the hot mat against my chest.  The security guard, the back-rubber, comes out with his club.

“You piece of shit, what do you think you’re doing?”

I run.  The punishment for this is heavy.  I have to be fast.  Past the beautiful lit houses.  Past the light rail.  The security guard runs, too.   I see him over my shoulder.  He’s graceful in pursuit, his metal club raised.

I start to lose my breath.   We get to my neighborhood and into the dark, but I can hear his footsteps.  I see the river, run toward it, but then I swear it shifts, like it’s moving again, falling away from me.  Then it bends, time and water rushing forward, and I turn with it.  I look behind me.  The security guard is gone.  He couldn’t keep up.

I take the mat home. It’s dark, but I survey the empty floor for the right spot. I put the mat by the front door.  Then I take my shoes off and stand on it.  The numbers don’t go green, but they don’t go red, either.  The screen stays blank.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge #2

The story below is my submission for NYC MIdnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge, Round 2. My first story in the previous post earned 2nd place in the group, which I was excited about.  The second challenge was tougher, though.  Romantic Comedy? Damn.  The assignment was to write a story with less than 1,000 hours in 48 hours using the following guidelines:

Genre: Romantic Comedy     Location: Chocolate Shop    Object: Fried Chicken.

Clearly the judges didn’t know about my affectionate history with fried chicken.  Rather than make a cameo, chicken is central. I even bought and ate a bucket of fast-food chicken for research purposes. Please feel free to share feedback here or on the forum post if you’re a FF participant.  Hope you enjoy Looking forward to reading others’ stories.

Happy Chicken

I work in a chocolate shop.  Ted’s All-American Truffles.  But the truth is I hate chocolates.  I especially hate Ted’s chocolates and his top-selling ‘patriot truffles.’

“Truffles are from France, you know,” I once told Ted.

“Fuck the French.  I bet their truffles are tiny,” he replied.

I put up with Ted because he’s loyal, and it’s hard to find a steady job.  I’m his only employee that didn’t quit after six months, so he made me manager.  I manage one employee, Ruth, a sixty-five year old grandma who eats a pound of truffles every shift and smokes pot in the backroom.

At the end of her shift, she takes home a bag of chocolates for her husband.  I wish I had someone to give chocolate to.  But I don’t.  Because I’m ugly, unlovable, and I eat too much chicken.

Most nights I lock the doors and walk one block to a white-brick store called Happy Chicken.  On the sign outside is an illustration of a gold chicken wearing an apron and smiling, like he’s about to cook himself just for you, and he’s damn happy about it.  The real cook is Emi, a Honduran immigrant who won’t share his secret recipe.  I get a bag of his chicken each time and take it to the backroom at Ted’s where no one can see me eat.  I peel off the skin and eat it in one clump.  I eat the chicken down to the fat and bone, then bite the ends off and suck out the marrow.  When I’m done, it looks like a pile of sticks in a paper bag.  It always happens that somewhere around the third piece, I start to feel self-loathing.  The grease rings around my lips, and I know I’ll feel even worse in an hour when everything settles. Then I eat three more pieces.  I do it because I love Happy Chicken.

Couples come in holding hands.  In a chocolate shop, it feels like everyone has someone they love.  Even Ted.

“How do you do it?” I asked him once.

“Do what?”

“Get someone to love you.”

“If she asks for something, I give it.”

“All the time?”

“Everytime.  If she asks for jewelry or a dog or to visit her parents for the weekend, I say the same thing—of course.”

“Can I have a raise?”

“Of course not.”

I smile at the girls who come in without boyfriends.

Today a pretty girl smiles back.  She asks me which truffles I like best.

“It’s hard to say. All of them.”  Ted is snooping around, inspecting receipts and pretending he can do math.

The girl has fake red hair and wears plaid flannel.  She’s not heavy, but not thin, and she wears the extra weight well. I can tell she likes the way she looks.  She is stunning. When she leans over the counter I can smell cookie dough lip balm.

“You know what, come back later when he’s not here. I’ll give you some for free.”

When Ted’s gone, Ruth goes to the back to smoke a joint.  I lock the doors and join her.

“Ruth, how do you do it?

“Do what?”

.           “Get someone to love you.”

“Got to find the right one, I guess.  Someone who loves you for who you are.”

“But how?”

“You know I was heartbroken before I met John.  A lonely mess.”

“Yeah?”

“Torn up.  Heart in two.”

“How’d you get over it?”

“I ate a tub of ice cream every night.”

“Every night?”

“A tub.”

“So what happened?”

“Eventually I started dating again, but I didn’t give up my tub of ice cream.  A lot of guys wanted me to diet, to stop eating ice cream just for them.”

“And John?”

“John was the one who put his hand right in the tub, didn’t even use a spoon.”

“So what you’re saying is I need to find someone willing to put her hand in my tub of ice cream?”

“That’s right.  At the very least, eating ice cream makes you feel better, or whatever it is you eat back here in private.”  She knows.

“Could you watch the store for awhile?”

I walk to the corner.  The happy chicken smiles at me.

“The usual?” Emi asks.

“Make it a bucket tonight.”  He raises his eyebrows.  He’s impressed.

“I will give you extra biscuits,” he says.

“I love you,” I say.

“No,” he says, shaking his finger. “You love my chicken.”

When I get back Ruth is gone.  I don’t even take the tub of chicken to the backroom.  I sit behind the glass counter and start eating.  I start on the skin, then the chicken, the bones, the marrow.  I pull my shirt up to wipe my face and hands.  I eat without thinking about anything, about all the people who have someone to buy chocolates for, about all the girls who never smile back.  I just focus on my love for this tub of chicken that’s right here in front me tucked between my legs. Around the eighth piece, I’m sad again.  A tub of chicken is too much for one person.

The front door opens.  The girl with fake red hair walks in.

I hide the tub on the floor and pull my shirt down.

“You’re back?”

“I am.” She walks to the counter.  I can smell her cookie dough lips.

“So what can I give you? Caramels? Patriot Truffles?”

“You have something between your teeth,” she says.  She leans in.  “Is that chicken?”

I look at my reflection in the glass case, the greasy lips, the now-blushing cheeks, the string of dark meat stuck between my incisors. I can’t hide who I am.

I put the tub of chicken on the counter.

“Yes, it is,” I say.

“God, I love chicken,” she says.  She reaches towards the tub.  I hold my breath.

“Can I?” she asks.

“Of course,” I say.  Then she puts her hand right in the tub.