Curtains and Loud Curtsies

The curtains were drab, dyed a dark, oppressive brown that hurt Miranda’s eyes as she took in the room. The bedstead was plain and the lamps dull, but it was the curtains that made the whole of the room so depressing. Miranda imagined how cheerful the room could be made to look if only the curtains were yellow, but the brown ones were so undeniably present that she gave up trying to make herself feel better, and sat on the bed with a heavy sigh.

There was a soft scuttling sort of sound inside the wall that made her cringe. Mice and rats and spiders and filth, she thought acidly. She was about to cry out, but the maid entered her room without knocking at that very moment.

The girl was as neglected as the small inn. Her apron was singed in places and her little white cap was askew and rather grayer than it should be. Her face was still fresh and young but there was no rosy tint to her cheeks nor a bright glint to her eyes. She looked defeated and tired, as if she were up since dawn and wouldn’t be abed until the small hours of the night. Miranda looked at her with distaste, feeling that maids ought not to look like this.

“Please knock in future,” she said coldly to the girl.

“Pardon me, mum, didn’t mean no disrespect, mum,” the girl curtsied nervously, knees cracking and elbows sticking out awkwardly. She didn’t sound very sincere, but rather tired. “What can I do for ya, mum?”

“My baggage is in the carriage downstairs, as you no doubt saw already. I’d like someone to bring it up. I won’t have it left in the stables for anyone to rob. When is a meal served in this… establishment?” Miranda asked haughtily.

The maid lowered her eyes before answering. She didn’t want the grand lady on the bed to see that her eyes were prickling with tears of shame. “Ya just missed dinner, mum, but tea’s at four and supper’s at six. O’clock,” she added hastily.

“Good, so there is someone civilized here,” Miranda nodded approvingly. She felt that tea should always be at four o’clock and supper should always be served promptly at six. However, she’d lately stayed at rather nicer and more modern – she winced mentally at the word – hotels where they served tea at five and supper at seven. She supposed this inn may have once been a fine place but that it had gone to the dogs when the larger and smoother road had been built a few miles away.

As the maid curtsied loudly again and left the room, Miranda stared at the ugly curtains and reflected on her bad luck. It was no use – she would have to ask her husband to spend the money they’d been saving, and build a road between their estate and the main road to London. She was tired of taking this small, pathetic byway. Every time she visited her sister in London she feared that the carriage wheels would get stuck in the seemingly ever-present mud, and this time it finally happened. Her driver was downstairs, probably getting drunk already. He’d promised that the wheel would be fixed by tomorrow and that she’d be able to get home. It was lucky, he kept telling her, that they broke down near the old inn and that she would have a warm place to sleep that night. Miranda had solidly ignored him, as she often did.

She checked to see if the door to her room had a lock. Thankfully it did, and so she felt able to take off her outer clothed and wash her face and hands in the basin in the privy that lay behind a not-so-discreet door. She touched the handle gingerly and went in. The water in the basin looked and smelled stagnant. She sighed heavily and put her face in her hands. So, she thought to herself, nothing is to go right for me today.

Prettier Than You’d Think

Death sat in the shadows, and waited. She felt very stereotypical, as if she were playing by the rules. She hated conforming. But it was a hot day, and underneath the trees on the damp earth was the coolest place she could sit. As much as she didn’t like being as expected, she also didn’t think it was very attractive to see Death sweating profusely from her upper lip. So she waited, and watched.

A mother and child walked on the sidewalk in front of her. The mother didn’t look at her, because while one hand was holding onto the child tightly, the other was holding a cellphone almost as tightly and she was talking into it earnestly. It sounded like the producer was willing to change the shoot to February, but only if they could make sure that there would be a minimum of rainy days. Death snorted. So this woman thought she could control the weather? Ridiculous. The child, now, the child looked brighter than its mother. Death wasn’t sure if the little puffy thing with curly black hair was a boy or a girl, but either way, the child was looking straight at her with curiosity. Death considered anyone who was smart enough to look her in the eyes to be intelligent.

Death was a little bit of a snob. She couldn’t, of course, discriminate, not really, but she much preferred needing to deal with smart people who didn’t grovel, beg, whine or bribe her. Not that any of it would work, of course,  but that didn’t matter – so many people tried it anyway. Death had relented buy once in her time, and it had ended horribly. She’d received an official warning for it and everything, and she could’ve been sacked, but she managed to explain the circumstances (the bosses were such suckers for true love stories) and got pardoned. She couldn’t afford another mistake, though, which was why she was waiting in this spot well ahead of time.

Technically, her name was Death, Agent #900,345. But nobody needed to know that there were so many of them around – each person received the true and only Death, as far as they were concerned. So Death waited for her man, wondering what he would look like and whether he would be one she’d like.

A man walked in front of her now. He carried a briefcase, and his glasses were just geeky enough to be considered fashionable. He was in his late twenties, with light brown hair that was streaked back with some sort of hair product. He had a roundish face, stubble-free and still boyish, and his lanky frame made his for-the-office clothing seem just a little big on him. Death sniffed, once, and could tell he was the one. As he fell onto the sidewalk, suddenly, without ceremony, grace or aplomb, Death rose to meet him.

He stood there, looking down at himself. “What happened?” he asked as she neared him. And then, “You’re prettier than I thought you’d be.”

“You’ve been thinking about me? I’m flattered,” Death smiled at him and took his arm. She led him a little way away, and together they watched as people rushed towards his body, tried to revive him, pinched and moved and pushed him this way and that, screamed and called 911. Time seemed to speed forwards, and he was pronounced dead, his cellphone and ID found, and the medics called the first numbers there.

“They won’t find anyone real there, you know,” the dead man said.

“Oh?” Death asked.

“Yeah, I was kind of a corporate spy. My work cellphone had lots of fake people on it, in case the bosses got suspicious of me. My real phone’s at home.”

“Cool. Never had a corporate spy before,” Death said. She turned him so he faced her. “So.”

“So… what now?” the dead man asked.

“I don’t know. Why don’t you find out?” she answered. She gave him a slight shove in the chest. He looked at her, smiled, and laughed.

“You’re really much prettier than I thought you’d be,” the dead man said, before his image, still shadowing his body, disappeared.

Death spoke to the empty air where he’d been. “You’re not so bad looking yourself,” she said, and then looked at her schedule. Time to move on to the next one.

It’s 2AM

…and I’m exhausted. I worked my butt off from 6:3oPM to after midnight, and let me tell you – as much as I love books [and you all know I do], they’re HEAVY. Needing to arrange huge shrink-wrapped packs of ten copies of The Master and Margarita is no picnic, let me tell you.

Still, it’s worth it. I got moved to the classics table – I’d been at the contemporary fiction before – and I’m so much more acquainted with the older classics, mostly because they’re translated, while the contemporary fiction includes a lot of Hebrew books I haven’t read yet [although I’d like to.] So I got to spend the evening talking about Virginia Woolf and Melville and Hemingway, as well as the Israeli Yoram Kaniuk. I got to see people’s eyes light up when they saw that The Nick Adams Stories were finally translated into Hebrew, as well as Wolff’s Flush. I got to see the people who want more than airplane books, people who want to have the copy of a book they read years ago on their shelves and people who were just discovering the wonders of the classics.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t sneer at airplane books. I’ve read two Dan Browns, so I can’t claim to be a snob. If someone loves to read, then I don’t think there’s any reason to fuss about what he or she is reading, just so long as they’re spending that much time away in someone else’s world. But still, there was something about the people I sold books to tonight that made me feel like they were kindred spirits, excited that there was a world of books out there, old as well as new, that they could discover.

Flash Fiction Thursday: Shana, Sorority Girl

Shana laughed, throwing back her head and opening her mouth wide. She had a laugh like no other, an uproarious, full-throated, loud laugh. At parties, people always looked behind them to see who had interrupted their shallow conversation so rudely, but then they saw Shana. After they watched her laugh, they couldn’t stay irritated.

“Are you, like, coming onto me?” Shana’s eyes were bright with mirth, her laughter having just subsided. She stared at the weedy, scrawny, pimpled freshman standing in front of her. He was resolutely holding up a bottle, ready to refill Shana’s shot-glass. It had taken mounds of courage for him to come up to her and ask, with what he thought was a sly, alluring smile, if she wanted a refill, babe.

“Well?” Shana’s eyes were already wandering, looking for someone else, someone cool and trendy and beautiful to talk to. There was quite a pick of young men – lots were in togas, this being their yearly let’s-crash-the-sorority-girls’-party-without-underpants-on event. Pimply freshman forgotten, she wandered over to where some tasty looking guys were gathered.

“Yo, hey, can you fine fellows pour a girl a drink or what?” She smiled coquettishly, her naturally blond hair flipping over one shoulder in an expert move to show off her bare shoulders. A black haired, toga-clad frat-boy turned to look at her. Shana’s smile disappeared. Her face fell, mouth hanging open stupidly, a look of shock stamped into her usually lovely features. The frat-boy looked her up and down, deliberately slowly, and grinned, revealing very pointed canines. When he spoke, Shana could feel the shiver creeping up her back like a line of ants.

“Hello, my heart. I told you we’d see each other again.”