Never Be

Standing in the corner with the umbrellas and the hat-rack is an old rolled-up map of places the old woman has never been. She sits and rocks in her chair in front of the television that has been broken since 1967 and stares at the window behind her left shoulder and the silhouette of her figure  reflected in the rounded screen before her. The dials are dusty and the buttons are cracked with age. The plug is melted to its socket from the time a bad power outage sent a surge through the wires and sparks flew everywhere.

The old woman’s cheeks are sunken in and her shapeless knit hat is askew. She chews her bottom lip in a rhythmic motion that matches her rocking, and she counts. She counts the steps it takes to get from her chair to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the post-box outside. She counts the steps it takes to get to the store in town and to the bus stop that takes to the city and to the music hall in the city where she saw the young man with the broken tooth and the newspaper hidden in his jacket and the glasses fitting his face lopsidedly. She counts how long it would take her to find her address book and run her finger down the alphabet to find his name; how long it would take to get a grip on the page and how long it would take to flip to it without ripping any of the pages in between. She counts the teeth left in her head and the days that have passed since her children have visited.

She counts wrong, often. She loses the thread between four-hundred twenty-seven and four-hundred twenty-eight. Sometimes she skips numbers, going from one thousand and one to twelve-thousand fourteen without a pause.

Her door is unlocked and she waits for the cowled figure she was promised in childhood. She remembers pictures of hourglasses and the fear of other girls looking at the scythed man beside them in the tarot cards. She knows exactly what she will say if he ever shows up. She will complain, and ask why he didn’t come when she could still take a step, a dance, a twirl. He will have to carry her out now, she’ll point out, and what, she’ll say, is the point of that.

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Even with Good Reason

Crammed in a corner of a booth, Marta watched the flurry of snow outside obscure the street. There were two people she didn’t know sitting across from her.   The storm had ushered everyone inside and the owners didn’t want to kick anyone out. It was uncomfortable – Marta was a reporter, used to talking to people, but she was also used to being prepared. Being invaded by this couple made her feel as if she was back home.

They were bickering. It was whispered – hissed, really. Marta kept wanting to wipe nonexistent spit off her face. She tried hard not to look at them, but her plate was empty and her book was too dense to concentrate on in the louder-than-usual bustle.

Another similarity to home, that overcrowded air. Different, though, was the fact that the diner seemed to have been invaded, whereas home had never been any different. She clenched her fist and caught the couple staring at it. She took it off the table and hid it in her lap, turning a page of her book with the other hand even though she hadn’t taken in anything on the previous page.

She glanced out again. There was no one in the street that she could see, but then they might be behind the first or second or third curtain of snow.

There were a million reasons for why she was sitting alone – more alone than she’d have felt if there was no one else at the table with her – and at least half of those were reasonable. But a deep, black rage bubbled inside her and she had to put her book down to be able to clench her other fist in her lap.

“S”

Whenever she looked out her window, she saw a big “S” on the red brick building across from her. Just one letter, a simple one, with a serif on either end. It wasn’t the most innocent or joyful of letters; “snakes” and “sadness” and “sordid” all began with it, and she couldn’t help thinking of those and other harsh words whenever she looked at her “S.”

But not everyone had a big, two-story-tall letter painted on the building across the street. She could tell it was that large because she could see the windows next to it. Okay, so maybe it was only one-and-a-half stories tall, but it was up around the tenth or eleventh floor, and everything looks bigger higher up. Or so she thought at least.

It was kind of like Stephen (another “S”, she always reminded herself) who was so beautiful and seemed so majestic. He was tall, and his head was disproportionately large for his body. But she couldn’t help being attracted to him, daydreaming about him, adding the letters to his name to her view of “S.” Stephen, for his part, didn’t know she existed because they’d never been introduced. In fact, his name wasn’t actually Stephen, it was Pedro, but she’d given him a name of her own after she’d seen him at the bagel shop on the corner for the fourth morning in a row.

She wasn’t an obsessive person, no, you couldn’t say that exactly, she thought, but she was definitely aware, and self-aware as well, and she knew there was a certain obsessive quality to her fascination with her “S.” Especially when she knew there must be more letters painted up there, hidden from her by the jut of another building that was angled just right to show her the one “S” and nothing else. She wondered whether she’d ever see the thing, the letter or the entire word, from street level and see what it was referring to. The thought was terrifying.

Ursula Awake [Flash Fiction]

The hammering, clanging, clanking – the sheer metallic cacophony of sound was driving Ursula slowly, but surely, crazy. It wasn’t very late – only eleven-thirty or so – but there were rules about this kind of thing, even laws. No noise of this kind after eleven o’clock. Or even ten. She wasn’t sure which, but either way, by now the work should have ceased, the workers gone home for the night.

Turning over again, she lay a hand on her ear, shoving the other one deep into the pillow. Her own skin and bones weren’t nearly enough to shut out the racket, so she pulled over her husband’s pillow – he was still in the living room, watching something stupid on TV – and held it over her ear, making her head look like a strange, Ursula-faced sandwich. She began to laugh, a little at first, then harder, finally rocking with hysterical giggles, stifled behind her mouth. She tossed the second pillow away again. It wouldn’t do to be woken in the middle of the night by the sound of her husband’s ridiculing snort.

Still the noise went on. Ursula sat up and shook a couple more pills out of the plastic, orange bottle that was as familiar by now as a teddy-bear. Reaching for her glass of water, she hesitated, wondering if her habit was escalating. She decided she would think about it in the morning. Right now she needed the deep sleep that she hadn’t gotten since her daughters were born some thirty years previously. Maybe tonight would be the night, even with the pathetic stage being built in the park outside.

And that was another thing: why on earth were they building the stage at this hour? The park was controlled by the neighborhood, and they’d all signed to have the lampposts turned off there during the night. How were the workmen seeing what they were doing? Ursula mentally upbraided herself for assuming that the workmen were men. She supposed perpetual fatigue was as good an excuse as any for being a bad feminist.

Amelia [Character]

Amelia thought about death a lot. She didn’t consider herself morbid. She told people she was a realist. “Every time you cross a street, you might die,” she would say. “A freak tornado can happen at any time. Earthquakes aren’t that rare. All it takes is one moment of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’re dead. And that’s a fact.”

She ran a finger underneath the velvet choker tied round her neck. Lifting the long-stemmed glass in front of her, she took a sip of champagne. The bubbles burned her tongue. The restaurant was brightly lit, clean and simply decorate, but Amelia saw dozens of opportunities for death all around her. If the waiter slipped right there, he would bang his head on the corner of a table. If the bartender poisoned the beer barrels, everyone who was ordering on tap would be in trouble. If the electric chandelier fell, it would crush the angry family sitting at the table directly beneath it.

“Ah, Amelia! Welcome back, welcome back,” the head waiter said, shuffling over rather nervously and drying his sweating hands on his tailcoat. “What can I get you today?”

“Nothing much, nothing much. This champagne is rather nice, you know.”

“I’m glad it’s to your liking!”

“Yes. Do you know that if you swallow something the wrong way, the fluid stays in your lungs? You can accumulate so much fluid there that it can kill you.”

“Indeed?”

“Hm. I think so. Maybe not. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Amelia realized she was a little tipsy. This was, after all, her third glass. “Death is a beautiful thing, my dear sir, did you know that?”

“Amelia, now,” the head waiter extended his hands forward, trying to ward off the oddness. “You remember what happened last time we had this talk?”

“Yes,” Amelia said, her voice serene and her eyes gazing far away. “You ended up escorting me out very rudely and then calling the police. The police, mind you, could have been very rough with me. Did you know that there was a kind of thing as ‘suicide-by-cop?'”

“No, I wasn’t aware. The cops weren’t rough with you, were they?” The head waiter’s anxiety levels were rising and he could almost feel the blood pressure closing his arteries and making it difficult to breathe. Amelia, or maybe it was Amelia’s money, often had that effect on people.

“No, no, of course not. But they could have been, you know. I just think you should get us both some lemon pie and then sit down and have a chat with me. What do you say?”

The head waiter made his excuses and hurried away to get the bill which he would put, not so tactfully, beside Amelia’s plate of pie. He sometimes had nightmares about Amelia. It was hard for him to envision her as someone like him, with a family and a past and some future. She had significantly less future than he did. Maybe that was part of why she frightened him so much.

It was so convenient and easy to see her as a scary old witch who was fascinated with her mortality; it was rare that people saw her for what she was – her friends dead, her family members all involved in their own lives, she was an old woman who was, indeed, fascinated with her mortality.

An Ode to Dorothy

Dorothy, poetess supreme,

For you I long, of you I dream.

Parker, drinker, hostess, wit,

I find no adjective to fit.

Life was longer than you planned,

Death escaped your grasping hand.

You sure attempted suicide,

But never gained the other side.

 

Marianne

An abundance of light brown hair, creamy skin and freckles made people stare whenever she told them she was born in Africa. It always amused her, seeing this prejudiced reaction in the people who ate at the restaurant where she worked. She sounded French, you see, and so they all assumed that she was a young photography student, maybe a dancer, who worked during the mornings.

She was a student, this was true, but not of what people always assumed. Her large eyes and pink lips seemed to give most people the impression that she was a dreamer, when, in fact, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. She hadn’t remembered a single dream she’d had at night for over ten years. This isn’t to say that she was without imagination – theoretical mathematics required more of the stuff than anyone who wasn’t studying it could believe, and Marianne possessed it in abundance. The simple logic of numbers, a universal language, was beautiful to her, and the deeper mysteries of unreal numbers and the roots of negatives fascinated her and raised a song in her heart.

It was hard for her to find a date – there wasn’t time between night classes, homework and her job at the cafe to go out anywhere. She got countless phone numbers from customers leaving a fat tip on their credit cards, smiling at her with cheeky grins, but she never copied them from the receipts, simply leaving them in the cash register where they belonged. She wasn’t interested in random men who saw her wrapped in an apron and looking like the picture of womanly virtue. Neither did she want the fawning boys in her class who drooled at the thought of a female mathematician. No, she was looking for something else, and she would recognize it when it came. She hoped.