Dish & Tin [Flash Fiction]

I woke up in the evening, oversleeping my alarm clock by two hours, as usual, and stumbled out of bed to look something to put in my mouth. My stomach was like a gaping black hole that was consuming all my other organs into it, excruciatingly slowly. I wasn’t sure when I had eaten last, but it had probably been sometime during that day, although the light outside made me think it was dawn rather than dusk. I always feel effed up like that after a nap, but hey, what else am I supposed to do when I work nights and still have to get up in the morning for classes? Naps are the only way I can keep my eyes open and my wits about me. Last week someone on the same block I work on got some serious booze stolen from her because she wasn’t paying attention to the monitors. Working at a convenience store during the night shift is no joke. If anything is missing from the register it comes right out of my paycheck.

My disgusting roommates left the sink full of dishes, like they always do. I hate them. I really do. I sometimes have violent dreams about what I do to them – I think I’ve killed them in several different ways, all painful and quite bloody. I’ve been watching too many gory tv shows lately, I guess. Or maybe I’ve always had a sick imagination. It’s kind of hard to know, because when I was a kid, sandwiched right between three older and three younger siblings, I kind of lost track of whose ideas were whose. When you share a room all your life, even in college, you sometimes end up losing track of when you come up with things and when other people give you ideas. I know from psych classes that everyone influences everyone, whether we want to or not. That’s just how it is, I guess. Makes sense. I don’t think I’ve really influenced anyone, though. I’m pretty boring.

Here’s an example. I always eat the same thing after I nap. Like now. I scraped out one of the pots that one of the bitch roommates left in the sink – I don’t even know what was in there, it smelled so foul, I think she might have marinated something in Bud Light – and then I washed it a few more times and then I made myself spaghetti with tomato sauce. Best dinner in the world. When everything sucks, you end up kind of taking pleasure in the little things, like how pasta always tastes the same, reliable like the old rag doll I brought from home and keep hidden under my pillow so no one will see it and laugh at me.

After I ate, I threw my plate into the sink. It broke. I think I threw it a bit too hard. I stood there for a while, with my hands on the counter, and tried to convince myself not to pick up the pieces of the plate. To just leave them there and let the others deal with it. But I ended up picking them up. And, like I always do, I also ended up doing all the dishes in the sink. I don’t know why I do it. It’s not like they ever say thank you, or even acknowledge that the dishes have been magically washed while they’ve been away, doing whatever it is that they do. For all I know they actually think that we have a magical house-elf that cleans everything for us. But I just can’t leave dishes in the sink before going to work. It’s too depressing to know that when I come back home I’ll have all those dishes sitting there, just looking at me, the stains on them like growths from a bad skin condition. That happens sometimes anyway, even after I wash them, because the roommates sometimes have parties when I’m not there to make a noise complaint to the security company on campus. And then I end up doing those dishes at five in the morning, before I take a shower.

I pick up my coat and my book-bag, and my tin with the weed in it and I leave the room. So okay, so I smoke weed. I promised Mom that I’d quit, but I deserve one luxury, don’t I? It’s all my money, after all. And I need something to take the edge off. Something to keep me going.

Ryan-ish

Dawn broke, and so did Ryan. He felt his mind splitting, disappearing within a vortex of pain and anguish. He hadn’t thought it was possible to feel this way, but here he was, lying in bed as the sun rose outside his curtained windows, and there was a yawning pit of emptiness sitting within his chest and sucking his internal organs into it. He had yelled, for a while. But then the neighbours from upstairs had pounded on the floor with their chairs and somewhere, Ryan still cared about what they thought, and he shut his mouth, feeling a burning shame come over him.
So for the last couple of hours, Ryan lay in bed silently, barely moving, knowing that the sound of the sheets moving sounded loud only to him and that no one else could hear it, but still too scared to move.
Nothing made sense to him. Nobody had died. Nobody had dumped him, not recently anyway. There was no reason for him to be feeling the way he was feeling. He thought he must be going mad. He wondered whether anyone else in the history of the universe could have felt as much pain as he was feeling at that moment.
There was a part of his brain that was talking sense and that kept telling him that he was merely going through a depressive episode, that it would pass, and that he had a lot of nerve to be assuming that what he was more dramatic or worse than what other people had felt at other times. When he thought of people dying in wars, being tortured and interrogated or gassed, he felt ashamed of himself.
The logical bit of him that was thinking this, the part of him that still had a personality and that hadn’t given everything up to the despair, was also rather intrigued by the whole thing. It was interesting, in a way, to be feeling as deeply about something that was utterly undefinable, unexplainable and unreasonable.
It was that part, that still reliably Ryan-like part, that decided that something had to be done. It forced the languid, limpid body to lean over and grab the phone from the bedside table. It forced the fingers to uncurl from their tight fists and to dial the number of his best friend.
“Ryan? Is that you?”
“Deb?”
“Oh my god, what’s wrong? You sound awful.”
“Yeah…”
“Seriously, Ryan, what is it? Who died?”
“Nobody.” He wanted to say more than this, but he wasn’t managing to articulate the words. His mouth opened but his tongue seemed to dry up almost at once and he gasped for air even though there was a steady breeze coming in from the other room.
“Ryan. Talk to me. Right now. You’re making me talk in cliches, and you know I hate that.”
It was that, more than anything, that somehow made him begin talking. The Ryan-ish part of him couldn’t bear to hear Debra talking in common phrases, so far from her over-stylized and careful vocabulary. Other people asked how you were when they talked to you on the phone; Debra asked you whether your muse was around and whether your lungs felt happy and whether your toes were enjoying the cold. She didn’t say things like “talk to me.”
Ryan explained, haltingly, with many pauses for gasps of air, what was happening. Deb was in London, and he knew even as he was talking that there was absolutely nothing she could do for him. He hoped that talking about it might help, but it wasn’t, not so far. On a normal day, Ryan couldn’t talk to her for five minutes without bursting out laughing, either at something flowery that she’d said or at a witty remark she’d made at his expense.
When she grasped the gravity of the situation, she began to ask him, with utter seriousness, whether he wanted her to come home. He teared up and began to sob, because she was the only person in his life who would do something like that for him. He choked out a resolute “NO” somehow, and made her promise him that she wouldn’t cut her vacation short.
He could almost hear her in his mind’s ear correcting him, as she’d done for the last few months when he’d complained about her going away. “It’s not a vacation,” she would say every time. “It’s a honeymoon. We’re going to dip the moon in honey and eat it and read poetry to each other during the rest of the time.” He’d rolled his eyes and expressed his opinions about how wrong it was for her to get married and she would shove him off whatever chair he was sitting on.
But she didn’t correct him this time, and that was what made him understand. He put down the phone without saying goodbye, and felt a fresh wave of sorrow lap at his feet and steadily rise to high tide. Meanwhile, the Ryan-bit of him was repeating the words “Huh. I didn’t realize that,” over and over again.

Remembrance

Contrary to popular opinion, James E. Jones was not rich. He had a rich name, this is true, and he wore beautiful clothing to school every day. But what nobody knew was that the clothes were all his father’s and that he wore them because the family couldn’t afford to buy new clothing for him. It was lucky for James E. Jones that he grew up very quickly and that by seventh grade he was as tall as his father, because it meant that when he started junior high, all the other kids thought he was rich. At his old school, everyone had laughed at him for his strange, grownup clothing.
Now James E. Jones was in high school, and he was going to graduate soon. He had never been to a party and had never kissed a girl. He had friends, though. They were two boys who were interested in math and science just like him, didn’t go to parties just like him and had never kissed girls – again, just like him. They were the outcasts, this group of three overgrown boys. As seniors, they were all lucky enough to have passed the weedy phase, and they looked like they were approaching manhood, but their minds and hearts were still too young for their overgrown limbs and their chest hair.
It was on a day in March that James E. Jones decided to do something. He’d been thinking for a long time that he hadn’t really, truly, done anything in his life. Sure, he’d kept the secret of his family’s intense poverty, just like his parents had always asked him to, but that wasn’t anything special, that was second nature by now. It was true also that he’d won first prize at the science fair for two years running – the first time for building a small machine that could put broken eggshells back together and the second time for managing to breed blue rabbits – but he didn’t consider that to be an achievement either. He was smart, but it wasn’t like he’d done anything in order to become so. He was just lucky that his parents were smart and had passed on their genes to him. His little sister, for instance, he considered to be dumb as a doorpost, but he loved her just as he would have loved someone intelligent, because it wasn’t her fault that she found infinitely more interest in playing dress-up with her friends than in reading James E. Jones’ kids’ science magazines that he’d stolen from the school library years ago.
He wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted it to be his own, something personal that nobody else could join in on. He wanted to do something that would make a mark, give him one day that he would remember forever, and hopefully also allow others to remember him, too.
There were a few brief moments when he thought about finding a gun and shooting up his classmates. He knew that would allow him to be remembered in the school forever, but it would be in infamy. He wanted attention – he admitted this freely – but he didn’t want to be hated or abused. He knew that some people who shot up their schools were given sympathy by the media and even, occasionally, by other classmates, but he didn’t think that anyone at his school knew him well enough to award him with some kind of sad and shocked understanding.
He thought about committing suicide, too. He didn’t really see much point in life, and when he thought about it, lying on his bed and looking at the marks on the low ceiling where he’d squashed mosquitoes over the years, he realized that he’d never found much reason for living. He was rarely actively happy. At most, he was engaged. He wondered whether there was something wrong with him, but he figured that if there was, someone would have noticed it by now and done something about it. Committing suicide was too risky, though. What if he lived? Then he would just feel pathetic for the rest of his life, and his attempt would be remembered as just another failed and misguided plea for help.
The days and weeks slipped by and James E. Jones still hadn’t made up his mind. He had almost reached a decision and a plan had half formed in his mind on the last day of classes. His thoughts were buried deep within his mind that morning as he walked towards school. He didn’t notice the truck that was zooming up the highway that he had to cross over to get to school. When the memorial service was over, and the school library was renamed after him even though his parents couldn’t donate any money for it, James E. Jones got what he wanted.

Armchair

An old woman sits before the fireplace. She clutches in her hand a photograph of the way she used to look. With the clarity of vision that comes only with old age and disappointment, she realizes that she was beautiful once. At least, she was beautiful outside. She can almost see the writhing black snakes that used to fill up her midriff and her heart, hissing and twining around one another, gloatingly, reveling in their hold on her.

A log crackles inside the fireplace and the old woman away from the photograph. There’s a cat by her feet, one of the several that she keeps around her, to remind herself that she still knows how to love. Not many people will let a gnarled old woman touch them, but cats don’t care how wrinkly she is, as long as she pets them.

She tries to get up, and falls back into her chair. She tries again, and falls again. She begins to weep. The cat by her feet sits up, stretches, and jumps into her lap, giving her an excuse to stay where she is. She wonders if another excuse is what she needs. The tears stop flowing as she gathers her resolve. She nudges the cat gently off of her lap and grips the arms of the chair firmly. She takes a deep breath.

She gets up.

Drip Drop

Drip. There is a computer screen in front of me. Drip. There is a glass window behind it. Drip. There are drops coming down from the roof of the library behind the window. Drip. There is a gravel yard beyond the water. Drip. There is a brick wall beyond the yard. Drip. There is a tree behind the wall.
Drip.
Drop.
Drip.
Drop.
The sky is one long unbroken shade of gray, which seems to be fitting for the kind of day it is. My mind is not at peace. My soul is not at peace. My heart is not at peace. Peace is close to the word piece, which makes sense, since they’re all in pieces right now.
Drip. There goes a tear. Drop. There goes another. Drip. The smell of wooden paneling makes me cry. Drop. The thought of thousands of miles makes me cry. Drip. I feel far away. Drop. Everything is pressing too close.
Drip.
Drop.
Drip.

Memory+

My grandparents’ house has always been, and still is, my greatest place of comfort. Now it is a mere memory, one that I will never get to experience in reality again, and there are days when I feel crippled with grief because of that fact. Today was one of those days. I was standing in the shower, letting the hot water stream over my limbs – I had just gotten back from the gym and was feeling my muscles loosen up pleasantly – when I felt, for a moment, as if I were standing in the shower-stall at my grandparents’ place. They had two bathrooms, but the showers in each were identical. The water stream wasn’t very hard, but there was always hot water, no matter what. Incredibly, the same is true of my dorm.

As I stood there, I let my mind flow back through time and imagined what it would be like if I were transported back into one of my memories. I saw myself, younger, stepping out of the shower and wrapping myself up in one of the fluffy towels that had monograms stitched into them. I would then get dressed while the heater blasted loudly onto me and helped me dry quickly. I’d get a shiver when I came out of the bathroom, because the house was always air-conditioned. I would still have a hair towel resting over my shoulders so that my long hair wouldn’t get my shirt wet. I’d walk through the rooms (in this fantasy, everyone was out doing something) and find wherever I’d left my book. I’d make myself two slices of toast and spread peanut-butter thickly on them, and eat them fast while the peanut-butter was still melting into the bread. I’d then maybe take a piece of Entenmann’s chocolate fudge cake and eat it slowly. All this, you understand, while reading one of the books I’d recently purchased at Barnes & Noble.

I’d take the book into my bedroom and read, with the birds making noise outside. I might let myself fall asleep, wake up and read, fall asleep again. I would wake up to find my mother and my aunt sitting outside, by the pool, smoking and watching the sunset as they talked of everything. I’d settle next to them, maybe with a cup of hot-chocolate in the old sippy-cup that I always drank out of there, and let their words wash over me. Once in a while, I might say something clever and make them laugh.

We might take a walk down the street to see the twinkling lights of the city. Or we might be going out to dinner with my great-uncle and his family. Or perhaps we would simply stay in, play word-games or watch a film. Maybe they would do something else while I would go watch episodes of Roseanne on Nick@Nite.

I opened my eyes. I was at college, in the shower, with a limp yellow curtain instead of a glass-door beside me. I am twenty-one and have gone through five cycles of mourning – perhaps six, since I considered the sale of the house that my imagination took me to as a death in its own right. I am confused, obsessive, anxious and often depressed. These are facts that I cannot alter.

But – and this is an important “but” – I have the comfort of knowing that I will always hold memories sacredly, and will never wish to ignore the past. After all, the past can help the present feel a little bit better. As I smoothed my wet hair back and shut the water off in the shower, I felt a longing open up a hole within me, but it also exuded warmth that has kept my heart thumping all day long.

Empty Days

There were days when she simply wasn’t there. Entire days during which she worked on autopilot, keeping her head down and moving from one place to the next: from bed to the breakfast table and from there to the bus which took her to work and on and on until she was back in bed. She knew what was happening during those days – she was in there, somewhere, behind the dead eyes that looked out at the world – but she was stuck in some sort of conscious torpor, unable to speak a sincere word or process a complex thought.
She could never predict when this sort of day might occur. It could be a bright, sunny day in early June – then she’d miss the beauty of the hummingbirds surrounding the trees in the garden and the sweet smell of night-blooming flowers that wafted in through the windows during dinner. Sometimes it would be a blustery, rainy day in November, and she’d be immune to the blue mood that engulfed everyone else.
Whenever these days happened, she’d mark them down in her calendar when she woke up the next morning. She monitored the empty days, hoping and praying that they wouldn’t increase, but trying to find a pattern in them. Were they part of her menstrual cycle? Did they have something to do with her diet or the amount of exercise she took? She kept meticulous notes on all of her activities
She refused to believe that the empty days were absolutely random. If there were no triggers, she had no way to prevent them. If she couldn’t prevent them, then it was only a matter of time before she would walk off a bridge or in front of a speeding truck. She didn’t want to die, but the emptiness didn’t care about living.