Endangered Species (Story A Day May)

An Homage to a Book Recently Read 

In a small town in Israel, the kind with endangered flowers and signs picketed carefully near them warning children not to pluck the stems from the ground, there lived a mother and a daughter. The mother was a midwife, and she expected her daughter to follow in her footsteps and help bring children into the world just as she had been doing for years. “I gave birth to you myself,” the mother told the daughter. The daughter usually rolled her eyes at this, but out of the mother’s direct line of sight. She respected her mother’s work, but didn’t want to engage with it herself. There was too much blood involved, she tried to explain to her friends, who expressed concerns that her mother would be very upset when she found out that the daughter had taken to studying plants, which she had been fascinated with ever since learning why she couldn’t pick certain flowers that grew around her town. “It is our duty to God to bring children into the world,” the mother told her daughter. “And with our own two hands.” The daughter refrained from pointing out to her mother that between them they had four hands rather than two, especially as, in a way, her mother was right: there would continue to be only two hands involved in the pulling of babies out of wombs, and those hands would belong to her mother, who gave birth to her, and so in a sense her mother’s hands were her own as well.

When the daughter finally confessed to her mother that she was going to be a floriculturist and that she was moving to a dry city in the Israeli desert where there was a university that was willing to help fund the experiments she was planning involving plants that needed less water than others, the mother was surprisingly understanding. It was only once the daughter had moved out of her small town with the endangered flowers, only after she had begun her studies, only after she had fallen in love and begun to plan a wedding with her new lover that the daughter heard about what her mother had been up to. The two had fallen out of touch, both claiming busyness and different schedules, but the mother had in fact been avoiding the daughter and the daughter had in fact been avoiding the mother. So it was that when the daughter wanted to tell her mother about her upcoming wedding that she found out that her mother was locked up in a prison for the mentally ill due to the activities she started to perpetuate once her daughter had left.

It started slowly, a neighbor told her when the daughter visited her hometown with the endangered flowers. At first, the mother would just talk about her daughter’s decision non-stop at every birth she attended to. Next, though, she began to hold every baby girl that was born and call the girl by her daughter’s name, asking the baby if she would grow up to become a midwife or a floriculturist. If the baby motioned a certain way with her fists, the mother would coo and if the baby motioned another way, the mother would throw the baby at the new mother she had been attending with such force that there was, it was reported, often a squelching sound made between moist skins. Finally, the mother began to steal all the girl babies and put them under heat lamps in a room in her house – her daughter’s old room – where she talked to them as if they were flowers that would grow up to become midwives. When the women whose babies had been stolen found out where the babies had gone, they called the authorities. The mother refused to see a lawyer or to call her daughter, claiming throughout the whole procedure that she didn’t have a daughter, she had a blooming endangered flower that had come out of her womb instead and that no one must bother or snip it.

The daughter was so traumatized by the entire affair that she began to pick all the endangered flowers in the town, and then went to neighboring towns where she did the same, until finally she eradicated the entire population of Coral Peonies. She was finally caught and put on trial as well, but she wasn’t deemed insane, only malicious, and so she was locked up in a regular prison.

The mother and daughter now maintain a regular and cordial correspondence.

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My Grandmother’s Books (Story A Day May)

Your truth is my fiction, my grandmother, who raised me, whispered to me after she sang me a lullaby before bed and tucked me in. I was always on the edge of my consciousness when she said it, and I wonder now whether she timed it perfectly or whether I imagined it, a recurring nightmare of a dream. Maybe my truth was fiction, period, at least when it came to her.

It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I found out what she meant, or maybe that’s when I fabricated the notion of her whispering things to me at all. By then I was living with a different, more distant relative, a second or third degree cousin who only took me in because my grandmother stipulated in the will that he would only get the big chunk of change she left him if he became my legal guardian until I graduated high school. She’d died when I was twelve, right after my first period. It was as if she’d seen the blood on my underwear and realized that she could die safely now, knowing – assuming – that I’d be able to carry on her lineage.

The other thing that was discovered in her will, but that neither the cousin I lived with nor I discovered until after my sixteenth birthday, when we were at each other’s throats, was that my grandmother had written a long series of children’s books that had been accepted for publication long before her death but that she’d mandated wouldn’t come out until she passed away. How she got anyone to agree with this, I don’t know, but maybe the nature of the posthumous novelty, as it were, made some editor or publicist perk up enough to dole out large advances with the agreement of zero royalties. This would seem like a somewhat fair exchange, I thought. The first book, the news report said, was slated to be published in the spring, with a famous British actress doing the audiobook version and a famous American actress traveling around the country doing readings, with the proceeds of her speaking engagement going to children’s charities.

My guardian and I paused in our bickering over changing the channel when the news report naming a woman who was unmistakably the relative we had in common – her photograph also came up – and we grinned at each other in disbelief, then glee. We were related to the dead woman who was becoming famous! This was good news! We would surely be able to capitalize somehow! This was before we found out about the advance in exchange for royalties bit, of course.

Our smiles dropped – or mine did, anyway – when it became clear what the books were about. They were a series of eight chapter books, coming out twice a year for the next four years, and chronicled a girl who looked suspiciously like an illustrated version of me. She had my first and middle names, flipped, and she was – I began to either remember or fabricate the memory of my grandmother’s whispers – living with her grandmother in an apartment in the inner city that was painted a cheerful yellow. The girl would go through first to fourth grade over the course of the books, growing up with the children she was to entertain, the books becoming more complex per grade level.

When the first book came out, the publishers didn’t even send my cousin or me a complimentary copy, though we did try to contact them. We were labeled as crazy and put on a no-transfer list of some sort, since whenever we tried to call after a certain point, the various people in charge were invariably in meetings, out to lunch, or home sick. Us not being involved must have been part of the contract too. So when the blasted thing came out, I went to the bookstore and bought it, waiting for the clerk to see the similarity between me and the illustrated girl on the cover, but I was apparently the only one who saw it so clearly.

At home, I read the simply, first-grade-oriented chapter book. She described the cut I got when I was six, in first grade, trying to peel glue off my finger long after it had come off and accidentally tearing some of skin, fainting from the blood, and being very brave at the nurse. She described the little red bike I had that got stolen. She had the happy ending staged the day I got my first report card and was excited to see all the stars on it. My little girlhood friends were in the book too.

I wondered if they would sue or if they, like the rest of the world, would find the whole thing adorable.

As for me, I’m now signed to write a memoir on the traumatizing experience of having your grandmother steal the life right out of your little body.My

Brew (Story A Day May)

In Rome, the brewery was not as full as we expected it to be. The beer-tour fanaticism seemed to not have reached this remote corner of the famed city, or maybe it was the chilly summer rain that was keeping other tourists away. We were glad for the relative quiet, especially after fighting our way through crowds almost everywhere else. It was a bad idea to come during the “on” season, but we also weren’t sure whether Rome ever had an off season. You could say many things about us, and one of them was that we weren’t great at doing our research.

The brewery – makers of Castebebe beers, which ran a wide range of styles, from hoppy IPAs to smooth and dark coffee stouts – was off a main road and really not very hard to find, but we arrived just in time for their final tour of the day, and we were the only ones on it, though people who had been on earlier tours were sitting in the bar area and drinking despondently, maybe because of the weather outside and maybe because they were disappointed. We knew that we were of a rare brand of people who actually enjoyed Castebebe’s product. For the most part, it was enjoyed either only by Italians – or so we’d read – or ironically. Everyone other than us agreed that Castebebe’s label designs were the best part about the beers. They hired artists – or maybe it was only one who did all the different lines – who drew fantastical creatures that were impossible and Escher-like, their wings and tusks and hooves folding in on themselves like Mobius strips. People would sometimes get high instead of drunk and then stare at the designs on the bottles and cans made by Castebebe for hours, mesmerized.

We weren’t like that. We truly enjoyed the flavor of the beer, which we agreed was an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. It was over Castebebe that we’d bonded originally in a beer-lovers thread on Reddit over a year ago, and it was from there that we found one another on various other social media outlets, stalking each other equally, until we finally friended each other on Facebook and almost at the same time, asked each other out, just on different platforms (Twitter DM and Faceboom IM). Our first date was predictable – sharing a pitcher of Castebebe’s 2014 line of StormSoldier Wheat Ale – and our subsequent dates were predictable in a different way, in that we did what all new couples do. Movies, cafes, restaurants, more bars, until we finally were comfortable enough with one another to make it official and also begin to spend more time in bed and on couches, talking less, eating and drinking more.

What brought was to Rome was an attempt – so far a failing one – to rekindle our sex life and save our relationships from going up in flames over who got to come more when neither of us was ever really in the mood to pleasure the other, much less go through the entire messy time-consuming and exhausting act. It had begun as a half-baked scheme, a joke, but once we realized that the Castebebe brewery was in Rome, we decided to make good on the plans. We both asked for cash from relatives who thought we had birthdays coming up and made a concerted effort to save up our tips for a while from our respective tip-making jobs (massage and food service) until we finally had enough for an all-inclusive four day deal during the week, which was the worst tip-making time anyway and so the best for us both to take off work. Things seemed to be working out cosmically, swimmingly, until we got to Rome and found our Airbnb full of air-born bugs that had hatched somewhere and had to ask for a refund – which we wouldn’t get for some weeks – and check into a hostel where we didn’t get a bedroom of our own or a jacuzzi or any of the other things we’d been looking forward to.

But there was still the brewery, and as we followed the tour guide, who spoke a lilting version of broken English that we agreed in whispers sounded more like an American actor putting on an Italian accent than like an actual Italian accent, we decided in a few short sentences that we should probably break up when we got back to the states, but that we should enjoy the rest of the trip and be friends thereafter.

Over our favorite beer, which we got free as part of the tour package, we agreed that you can take the romance out of Rome but that you couldn’t, linguistically, take Rome out of the romance.

Broken Wings (Story A Day May)

They flocked together. What else could they do? They were all the odd ones out, which made them peculiarly fitting for one another. J, the irascible bartender who barely got shifts and was always broke but pilfered booze from the pub when he was there, keeping them all wet when necessary. M, the concert pianist with fingers broken in an argument with her boyfriend when he accidentally – he said – on purpose – she said – smashed the car door closed on her hand, ruining her career. B, whose business ventures failed as soon as she started them, each and every time, as if she were born to failure. H, whose performance art was more lucrative than it should be and who was waiting for the day they woke up to find that it was just a dream after all, whose entire being was fluid enough to fit in with any other crowd but who couldn’t, in good conscience, allow themselves to be subsumed by these or those or others because to do so would be a falsehood, and if H had one rule it was that performance wasn’t a lie but a truth creatively told.

These strange birds still in pinfeathers, barely out of the pediatric ward of life, found themselves with a semi-regular date at J’s bar, on Tuesday nights, when he could get a shift and the rest of them had nothing else going on, which was almost always, since J wasn’t a very good bartender and so got the off nights, and Tuesdays were empty of almost anything, let alone social evening plans. Except that they became so – social – and remained so – regular, more or less – proving that there was something to do on a Tuesday night, and it was this.

“Where’s H?” M said, coming in, rubbing her hands from the cold. Her fingers ached almost all the time, but most of all in the cold. She taught piano lessons for money and wept in her spare time. J nodded at her, whipping a glass out from under the bar and filling it with M’s poison – the cheapest beer on tap, whatever it was. B already sat at the bar nursing her own drink, a vodka-tonic with a plasticky cherry in it.

“Not here yet,” B said. She waved her phone around. “They called to say they’d be late.”

“That’s H,” J said, resting the beer in front of M. “Calling, not texting. Like he lives in the twelfth century.”

“They,” B and M said together. J rolled his eyes. No one else other than J could get away with it and still call H a friend. Even H didn’t understand it. B and M did, all too well, but since they knew that H didn’t have a shot with J, who was a self-described pussy-eater, man-whore, and pathetic romantic – depending on the night, his mood, and the amount he’d had to drink – they never addressed it with either H or J.

A customer came in and J reluctantly went to deal with the imposition. B and M waited, barely speaking. This was what it was to have friends, for them. To be able to sit silently, unquestioned, until the desire to speak simply arose in them. The four were like a meeting of Quakers that way. When the door burst open again, B, M, and J all turned, expecting to see H, but instead there was a policeman in the doorway, huffing and gesturing outside.

“Can I get you something?” J asked, using his barman rag as a prop, something to do with his hands.

“Your friend is outside, got hit by a car, said he was on his way here, he says you’re next of kin?” The policeman waved his arms pointlessly some more, trying to get someone to come outside with him.

“They,” B and M said together again, abandoning their drinks. J stayed inside. He couldn’t leave the bar. He had a job to do. He couldn’t get fired. He wasn’t paying rent on time as it was. But more than that, he couldn’t see H broken.

Outside was an ambulance and a police car and a gurney and the car that hit H and its driver. B and M rushed to the gurney to see that H was fine, shaken up but fine, maybe a concussion but fine. They hugged B and M and asked about J, and said to tell J that they were fine. B escorted H to the hospital while M went back inside the bar and smacked J upside the head for staying inside.

“I thought they would be dead,” J sobbed later, much later, after closing time, when he was good and sauced, and M made cooing noises and patted his back until he fell asleep.

Take My Class?

Hello readers and subscribers. I’ve taught my first solo class about flash fiction on a platform called Skillshare. They reached out to me (!) and asked me to join the likes of the awesome Ashley Ford, Emily Gould, and more.

I’d love for you to join me on this adventure, take the class, and write your stories in the comment sections (by stating your own project there – you’ll see on the page, it’s very simple).

I’ve got a limited number of free enrollments I can give out, so check out the link below and sign up (as of posting this there are 18 free spots left):

http://skl.sh/1MC1Y5c

A Moment of Truth

I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing lately.
That is, I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing creatively.
No, that’s not quite right either.
I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing fiction.

I’ve been writing up a storm of non-fiction. From reviews at Electric Literature to articles in Broadly to book-lists and essays on Read It Forward and BookBub to my single article on DAME Magazine.

It isn’t writer’s block. It’s writer’s busyness.  It’s writer’s intense fear of churning out crap. It’s writer’s knowledge that no matter what  she does, she already feels behind (yes, despite publications above, despite fiction publications, despite the fact that today, in an hour and a half, I’ll be lucky enough to have Skillshare folks come to my apartment to film me – me – teaching a class about writing flash fiction). It’s writer’s panic that she doesn’t now how to weave novels together anymore. Or words. Words that are fiction and not truth.

This moment of truth is terrifying because it is natural. It feels right. But this is not the writer I am. I am not a writer who writes truth. I am a writer who lies through her teeth in the form of fiction. I am the writer who’s convinced other people that some of her stories are autobiographical until she corrects them and tells them No, they’re not. They’re fiction. I wasn’t this girl, I wasn’t that man, I wasn’t this woman crying softly on her desk at work, I wasn’t this young woman in the hospital, I wasn’t these women hugging each other, crying, scared for their lives and rightly so because of a horrible thing they did.

Fiction, come back to me. Stop feeling like crap, please. I miss you. I miss your twists and turns, your marvelous language, the feeling of fabric straining through my fingers and wishing to be written into a story, fabric ripped apart and sewn back together again in the editing process.

I miss you, Fiction. I need you, Fiction.

These Words

In the calm gray of the afterlife, Shay discovers all the words she has not said in her lifetime hovering after her like the train of the wedding dress she will not wear.

These words, which she’d have thought would be all bad, are not. They are not only those she kept inside her when she wanted to speak so dearly that her tongue itched from the effort of keeping them inside. They are not only those nasty truths held at bay with white lies taught to her by her mother, which her mother learned from her own mother, and on and on through the generations until whenever it was that tact or manners or politeness were invented.

These words are there, the bad words, the sentences strung together with malice and caprice. But there are others too. Softer words. Words of praise that were never uttered out of laziness or forgetfulness. Words of love stoppered inside Shay’s body due to shyness or fear.

Shay can feel and hear the susurrus of these words following her, a reminder not only of what was never said but of what was never written. She wishes she were in a dream so that she could wake up and make it all up to the universe, but even if she weren’t dead due to a bullet to the brain in a bank, a bullet slow enough somehow to make her think of the famous story she’d studied in college; even if she were to wake up in a sweat in the bed she once slept in; even if, in fact, the entire thing were the effect of a drug taken at a party where she was feeling particularly ambitious; even if, if, if, Shay knows it wouldn’t matter. Words unspoken are rarely uttered without disastrous consequences. Words unwritten are only works of genius until they are penned.

She walks into the grey and hopes that this is the afterlife’s own little white lie: that all these words are worth something now, in death, even if they weren’t before.