Beauty Queen [Flash Fiction]

My name is Gwen. It’s a good, strong name. That’s what my pop always said. He said: Gwen, with a gee and a double-you, you’ve got nothing to be scared of in this world because the hardest thing for you will be learning how to spell your name with those big letters in it. I don’t know what my mama said because she skipped out on me and my pop when I was still real small. My pop always said she was the second prettiest gal in the world, after me. Then he would laugh and say: you had the best looking parents I’ve ever seen.

I guess he was right. I won all the beauty pageants when I was a kid, except for that one year when I was eight when I had to be in the hospital because I tripped and broke my head open. I don’t really remember it but my pop told me that I near broke it in two pieces just like an egg. Like the egg with kings and the horses, only my pop said that because I was the prettiest gal in the world we had the money to fix me up good. I still got a scar under my hair that I can feel. It’s all bumpy, and I kinda like it. I like having this one ugly thing on my head where no one, not even the meanest judges, can see it.

Henry used to tell me that I should be happy that I’m pretty. That was before he and Mick drove into a tree and got their drunk asses killed. I’m still mad at Henry for that, even though it was Mick who drove. I would have told Henry: don’t you get in the car with him, he’s drunk as a skunk. And maybe if it was me then Henry would have listened. But maybe not. My pop told me that there’s nothing I can do now except pray for their souls. But I don’t know if they need me to pray for them because if they died drunk then they must have stayed drunk in the next life too and those two pals had the best time when they were good and sloppy together. They could laugh at anything, even me when I let them and they were the only people who dared do that to my face so I liked it and I let them.

One thing that Henry never told me was that he thought I was pretty. He just said it as if I knew it, like it was the same thing as saying: the sky is blue like the ocean. All the others always kept telling me: do you know how pretty you are? But Henry didn’t because he knew that it didn’t matter to me one way or another if he thought I was pretty, just so the judges kept thinking so. Henry told me sometimes that I was smart, and I liked that best of all.

Foundling

A baby lay on the wide rim of the fountain in the middle of the town square. It was sleeping quite peacefully, wrapped in tattered green blankets. It was impossible to tell its sex by looking at it, since the only visible part was its face, which was still a little scrunched and red. The baby couldn’t have been more then a day or two old, and Maude Leary was astonished that it was sleeping in such a precarious position, on such a cool evening.

Maude was a sweeper. She walked around town with an old-fashioned broom made with nice long bristles tied well with a metal wire, and swept the leaves from the middle of the sidewalk to the edges. She did this all day, every day, from five in the morning until five in the afternoon. She’d gotten the job when she was seventeen, and even with all the changes that had been made in town hall over the last few years, no one had had the heart to fire her, even though she was the only employee of her kind. Maude was sixty-three now, but she looked quite the same as she had when she’d boldly walked into the now defunct old town hall and requested a job. She was, perhaps, more lined than she’d been at seventeen, but she still had the same sandy hair, the same spattering of freckles over her nose and cheeks, and the same wiry figure. She still wore overalls day in and day out, with a different colored t-shirt for every day of the week.

Today was a Tuesday, so she was wearing her purple t-shirt. Because of the cool weather, she had a scarf wrapped around her neck, too. Her hip was cocked to one side as she leaned on the familiar broom and watched the baby sleep on. “Well, I’ll be,” she murmured to herself. The town square was empty in the quiet before everyone got out of work and rushed on home, and a bird was cheeping absentmindedly in the nearby tree, doing its duty to the setting sun.

Quite suddenly, the baby opened its eyes. Its eyes roved this way and that until it found Maude’s kind, slightly mischievous, face. Her wide eyes met the baby’s and in a moment they seemed to understand each other perfectly. Maude took three steps and closed the gap between them. She saw now that there was a note pinned to the green cloth the silent baby was wrapped in. In big, slightly shaky, letters, it said: I NEED A HOME. Maude clucked her tongue, a habit she’d copied from her mother years ago. “Whoever left you here is a beast,” she informed the baby. A little hiccup came out of the tiny, pink lips. “You can chastise me all you want for it, but I still say they’re a beast,” Maude answered.

The big bell in the church began to toll the hour. Maude picked the baby up. “Our shift is over, little one,” she told the baby firmly. “Let’s go and have some milk, hm?” As the office building spewed out men and women in suits and the church bell continued to ring, Maude stumped off home.

Remember Where You Came From…

Pat clutched the phone and slammed it into her ear with her long fingers. “Hello?” she barked.

“Pat? Patty?” The voice on the other end was more than a whisper, but barely. It was hard to distinguish whether the speaker was male or female, such was the rasping quality of the words.

“Yes?” Pat drew a long drag of her cigarette into her mouth. She watched herself in the mirror, and couldn’t help admiring her own red lips curling around the end of the thin white cylinder that was held in her talons, the nails of which were painted ruby to match. “Hello?” she added, annoyed, distracted from her own wonderful image.

“Remember where you come from, Pat.”

The line went dead. Pat took the phone away from her ear and looked at it for a moment, as if it would reveal who the caller was and what he or she had meant. Slowly she returned the pink receiver to its cradle. She blew smoke out of her mouth slowly, watching the dramatic effect of her open mouth filling with blue-gray tendrils. Remember where I come from… she thought.

The mirror seemed to shift and waver in front of her, and she was confronted by an image that it took her a moment to recognize. The girl across from Pat was was about fifteen, wore a sweater that was clearly knit by hand and fit rather badly, had too much bright pink lipstick smeared on her mouth (and some on her teeth) and had more acne than seemed possible. Pat stared in horror and clutched at her own face; the image disappeared and she saw only herself as she was now, fifteen years later, smooth-skinned, fashionable, beautiful.

Jumping to her feet, she hurried to her address book and flipped through it quickly until she found the correct page. She opened up her laptop and began frantically typing an e-mail to her youngest sister, a girl who was, as Pat always moaned to their mother, a completely hopeless case and who would end up a spinster working in back-rooms so that no one could see her.

Her life was different after that day. She remembered that she’d had flaws once too, found a therapist, and began to work on what everyone around her knew to be her painfully inflated ego. It took her many years, but she became less judgmental, more accepting, and happier for it. She spent less time staring at the mirror and actually lived her life. She often wondered, and spent many fruitless hours with her therapist obsessing over the matter, who had called her with such a poignant message that day.

It was probably better that she didn’t know who the mysterious caller was. She would have probably been frightfully disappointed if she’d discovered that seven other people got the same mysterious phone call that day, and that twenty-two others got a similar call with the message “Seven days…” and another thirty-four were told that “I’ll always know what you did last summer…” Pat really wouldn’t have appreciated the two fourteen-year old boys who’d spent a lonely, boring afternoon ringing up their parents’ phone bills.

Thoughts on Genius

Disclaimer: Forgive me for the pompous and maybe too flowery nature of this post. I’ve been reading Michael Cunningham and Virginia Woolf and I wanted to try my hand at writing something like this, trying to articulate my thoughts with more than my usual drivel of words. Forgive me, again, if I sound obnoxious, and if I do, believe me, I won’t force any such thing upon you again.

________________________________

If there is a feeling that accompanies the witness of genius, surely it is awe. Seeing a great masterpiece of art, listening to incredible and unbelievable music, or turning the pages of a book where words, simply words written one after the other, convey the genius of the author – these experiences all come hand in hand with mixed emotions, and at their center, awe.

Somehow, genius seems to give one both the feeling of great insignificance and great community. At one and the same time, one feels tiny compared to this piece of majesty and beauty that touches one’s senses, but also part of a vast body of all the others who have appreciated and seen and felt what one has felt. The illogical nature of this emotion – for if one is small, how can one be large at the same time? – goes hand in hand with genius, which is something, I believe, that no one, not even its possessor, can fully understand. We can understand aspects of it, appreciate parts and facets of it, but never the whole. Perhaps we could gain a full picture of the nature of genius if we collected each and every person’s idea of what the piece, be it a painting, a piece of music or a novel, conveys, we might reach a whole in which we understand both what the genius meant to pass on to us and also what he or she didn’t, what we understand, we who are the vast organism that at one moment in time seem to exist only to appreciate the piece.

There is genius that is cold, calculated and smooth, the results of which would be cold and calculated too if only we didn’t have the need to insert emotion into everything. To this kind of genius we give our own thoughts and feelings, the stirrings in our bellies and the pictures that flash across our minds. We exalt something we may not understand, but why shouldn’t we do so when something has this quality that is so hard to define – genius?

Then there is genius that gushes with more emotion, more heart and soul that we can take in a single view, a single read, a single hearing. To this genius we may do a damage as we try to reign in our emotions and control them, simplify them, understand them. Maybe we shouldn’t try to do so, though, for maybe it is this genius most of all that we ought not to try and understand – maybe it is this genius that we ought to let take us for a ride, whirl us around without apparent, obvious sense and comprehension. Maybe swimming in the place where all emotions stem from, somewhere deep in the soul, is good for us, once in a while.

 

Collapse

Some things are destroyed all at once, in a flash and with a bang. The ruin is catastrophic, dramatic, big and bold. It’s a declaration of horror and ruin, without any cause for doubt or room for discussion. There’s a sort of beauty, stark and horrible, to a ruin like this. People watch car crashes and buildings going up in flames and roadkill for this reason – there’s a beauty in the dramatic effect of a life being snuffed out or even simply in the ruin of something substantial that you wouldn’t expect to be destroyed so quickly or easily. It’s a morbid and fearful beauty, but there is beauty in it.

Then there are things that collapse from within, slowly, without drawing attention to themselves. Things stew for ages, gradually becoming worse, collapsing by degrees. It’s like something decaying, almost – there is something there underneath the surface that rots away slowly, until one day you realize that the whole thing is about to fall down completely with the slightest puff of wind or nudge of a fingertip. There is a different sort of beauty here – the frail, the pathetic, the fragile and ethereal look that sometimes comes across in this situation. It is the feeling of impending doom, but one that has been coming for a long, long time.

No matter what, there is a beauty in collapse, however wrong it may be.

A Love Letter to Chicago

Dearest Chicago,

In the short time I’ve spent with you, you’ve managed to charm me. Quite apart from you keeping my brother safe and sound for four years, you have alluring qualities that are all your own. I really felt comfortable within your limits and amongst your streets, and even though you’re one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States, your beauty and loveliness still shine on as always.

You started out as a small town and you were officially made a city when you had three thousand residents. A city with a population of three-thousand when you began! Such a number is hardly considered worthy of a town in our day and age. Still, you knew somehow that you would be grand someday, and the same went for the people who lived in your embrace. Each building was built for beauty, practicality and grandeur – all three qualities together, without ever neglecting a one. Your streets were built in such a way that you would be easy to understand and navigate so that everyone would feel welcome to rest their boots upon your sidewalks and streets.

Over the years, you grew outward and became larger and larger, but you never gave up your simple beauties – your lake-front is as bare as it ever was and your river had pathways all along its sides. Buildings were built taller and taller, and yet you still feel spacious and airy, not intimidating or claustrophobic.

Chicago, you are a city of modern beauty.

Boots [Part I]

Boots, black and full of silver buckles, beckoned to Sandy from a store window containing a couple of corsets, a long velvet skirt, a collar with spikes on it and a jacket with so many artful rips in it that it didn’t look like it should be on sale. Unlike the other items in the window that rather alarmed Sandy, the boots seemed beautiful, like roses – tender and elegant but full of dangerous thorns.

Sandy realized she’d been staring at the store window for some time only when a red-haired woman appeared in the open doorway. She cocked one perfect eyebrow at the sight before her – Sandy, light brown hair tumbling in the wind, wearing a flowered white sundress and staring open-mouthed at the boots in the window.

“Need some help, Honey?” the red-haired woman asked. Sandy jerked out of her reverie. The wind died down just at that moment, and her bangs settled back on her forehead. She ducked her head, hiding behind her hair, shook her head “no” and walked away briskly. The red-haired woman ambled back into the shop, and knew that she’d be seeing that shy, flowery girl again soon.

All week long, Sandy thought about the boots. She tried not to, but couldn’t help it. She also thought about the red-haired woman a lot – there was something in that woman’s gaze, in her voice as she said “honey” so casually, that exuded a confidence that made Sandy profoundly envious.

It kept coming back to the boots, though. The red-haired woman had been wearing boots very like those in the window, Sandy remembered it well – the way the boots reached up all the way to her knees, with black and white striped pantyhose peeking above them. The boots, with their multiple-inch heels and the silver buckles along the sides, had made the red-haired woman’s legs look endless, beautiful and deadly. Sandy felt that if only she could have boots like that, everything would feel better.

By the end of two weeks, Sandy made up her mind. She collected her paycheck from the diner’s manager, changed out of her yellow waitress uniform and into one of her favorite pale blue dresses, walked to the bank to cash the check and then strode, with more confidence than she felt, right into the shop where she’d seen the boots.

The red-haired woman looked up from behind the counter, smiled, and said “Well, hello there, Honey. I had a feeling I’d be seeing you again.”