No Touching (Story A Day May)

Touching people wasn’t in the job description.

“Baltimore, Maryland! Baltimore, Maryland, next stop, next stop, Baltimore, Maryland, ten minutes, ten minutes to Baltimore, Maryland!” A stooped figure walks through the car, calling out the words that come so naturally that they slur together. “Baw-mor-mar-lan-nexzop-nexzop.”

Clarence’s belly protrudes over his uniform pants, but his shirt buttons don’t strain. They make the uniforms in his size, for which he is grateful. He doesn’t know how he obtained the gut; in the way of men of a certain age who have always been meaty and wide, it is only the stomach that really changed over the years, even as his arms remained strong and his legs carried him the distance of the train and back so many times a day. His wife likes to joke that he’s become pregnant with the weight of the world, and that he won’t give birth until he quits his job and gets off his feet.

He doesn’t think she’s wrong, but he also doesn’t think she’s right about this. He does know that touching people was never supposed to be his lot in life. And here he is, counting down the minutes to the next stop with dread, his palms beginning to dampen no matter how dry the train is kept. It is dry, he often hears complaints of it, and the daily commuters are savvy enough to bring moisturizer with them, even the men, he notices, always surprised at how his own quirks have become acceptable, such as keeping his nails trim and neat, his hands moisturized, his skin clear, using makeup when it isn’t, plucking his eyebrows out of growing into fuzzy caterpillars, these are all normal to other men now, and he remembers hiding his habits in shame when he was younger. But his own hands, so well-moisturized, now begin to sweat as he hollers the nearness of the station, and yet plenty of people are still sleeping, the ones whose tickets indicate that this is their stop.

And so he starts. The first is a lady, not a usual one, with the detachable hood of a coat resting on her head, maybe in place of a hat or because it helped shut out the noise of other passengers. Clarence doesn’t know and he doesn’t ask. He puts his hand on her shoulder and shoves roughly. He used to try to be gentle, but it meant he missed people, that people missed their stops, and the rage or despondence that result when people wake up to find themselves a state over from where they need to be is even more insufferable to him than the touching. So he’s perfected a harsh yet impersonal push that tends to wake people up for the most part. The woman is a starter – one of those who wakes up with a half-snort and an inhale of breath as if rising to the surface after too long submerged in water. “Baltimore, next stop,” Clarence tells her. She nods, and begins to get her things together slowly, sleep still weighing heavily on her.

The next is a man, an old man that Clarence sees often. He needs barely a nudge, he’s used to Clarence. He’s a smooth waker, one who opens his eyes as if he’s never been asleep, as if he was only pretending. He smiles at Clarence with his dentures and asks him how he is. Clarence says fine, fine, and “Baltimore, next stop, five minutes.” The man doesn’t need to gather anything. He always keeps his outerwear on, whether it’s a coat in the winter or a just his suit jacket in the summer, and even if it’s very hot in the train. His briefcase is always tucked between his arm and his body, and his legs are always crossed, one way or the other.

There’s a teenager at the end of the car. A pretty young woman. Clarence notices this precisely because he knows he shouldn’t notice, because she is his twin daughters’ age, and because he worries that men may look at his daughters and notice how they are pretty young women too. No one said he’d be touching anyone when he took the job all those years ago. No one. But here he is. He wishes he had a stick, something he could poke people with so his hand wouldn’t need to come into contact with this girl’s leg – which is the closest part to him and the only one visible. She’s is curled up on her seat with her upper body and head are covered in her coat, and he doesn’t want to reach up into the murky purpleness that is her coat and end up touching the wrong thing. Her knee seems the safest but most awkward place to put his hand, but he does, and he shakes roughly.

The leg jerks away from him and the girl rises and backs away, scooting herself back in the double seat towards the window, her curled hair matted with sleep on one side, her eyes bloodshot, a look of utter terror on her face. “Don’t touch me,” she says. “Baltimore, next stop,” he says, and touches his cap to her in a gesture of respect and detachment, he hopes, and goes on to the next car. Four minutes to go. Another carfull of people he is responsible for and whom he may need to wake up.

Touching was never in the job description.

Duple (Story A Day May)

Having missed Story-A-Day-May yesterday, I give you a double story today:

1. Crawling through the underbelly of a city was not something I envisioned doing in my lifetime, which amounted to all of thirty-seven years and eleven months. Yet here I was, hands and knees, sparse clothing covering what needed covering, a helmet made of a cut-in-half soccer ball resting on my shaggy once-shaved head. Palms dirty, knees beyond, nose unable to smell anything anymore. It was a new low. Literally.

2. They say that cities have character. That Rome feels different than London feels different than Istanbul different from Tokyo from Paris from Cairo New Delhi Amman Tel Aviv Moscow Bridgetown Cape Town… It’s true. Each of us is different, created from the underbellies of human filth and the topsoil of human kindness, the biblical animals of the sea and sky and beasts of the earth covering us and the scientific spellbinding microscopic germs and plain-to-see beetles spreading themselves widely across us. Years and months and hands and knees don’t mean a thing to us. We’re larger than that and smaller too. We are multitude and each singular.

1. I wish I could say I was looking for an engagement ring, one hidden in a roll or at the bottom of a glass of champagne, but I hadn’t tasted either bread or bubbly for some years. I subsisted mostly on leftover chips at McDonald’s and the soup made of too many things without proper names served in kitchens when I was lucky. I wish I could say I was looking for anything at all down there, in the sewer pipe between two larger tunnels but the truth was I wasn’t looking. I hadn’t gotten to that point yet. When you’re running away from something, you tend to only start looking for a hiding or resting place when you’re sure you’re not being pursued anymore, or at least that you have a decent advantage on the other person. Persons. Beings. Whatever it is that’s chasing you. Or, in this case, me.

2. We spawn. Cities do. We create things imagined by too many people to ignore, things that we listen to intently in nightmares and daydreams, things described and things hidden behind walls of consciousness. We give birth not only to the biologically sound but to the criminally insane visions of murderers and CEOs alike. Sometimes we allow our creations to escape the place where only we can see them – what do you think we create them for if not for our own amusement? We know human patterns, and they become dull after a generation or two. Watching your reactions to visions and impossibilities, to things that go bump in the night or Tinkerbell in the day is almost as amusing as natural disasters on our outskirts. As a general rule, we don’t love those disasters happening inside us. It tends to be painful in all sorts of ways that we couldn’t explain to beings like you with sensory underload. Five senses and you think maybe a sixth and that’s a lot? If only you know how limited you are.

1. I’d always thought of the seventh sense as something that few people had. I’d discovered it when I lost everything. Them’s big words: “lost everything.” An exaggeration, maybe, but when my hands and knees were dirty and disgusting and yet only a little worse than they’d been for the last few years, being dramatic didn’t seem like altogether blowing things out of proportion. Especially when something was pursuing me. It skittled and scuttled and my helmet-soccer-ball made the noise reverberate in my ears even more so I wasn’t sure if I was getting any farther away or what. I was certain, though, that I wouldn’t be able to run forever. When I realized that, I stopped. I was in another tunnel between two hallway-sized areas, on my hands and knees again, but I maneuvered so I was leaning my minimally clad back against the clammy wall. The reason I had so few clothes on was because I’d left most of them in my hiding spot and let myself walk around in the July heat with the sun on my skin, which felt nice, and rare. Until I started being chased. Now, when I turned my head to see the thing with the tick-tick-tick feet that was chasing me, I saw that it had stopped too. It looked at me, cocking its body or head or whatever the glowing bit with the eyes was, and then turned and scampered off in the other direction. My heart pounded and I thought I’d have a heart attack, but I’d survived worse, and I probably would again.

2. When we get tired of entertainment we let them go, our prey, our bait, our playing-with-our-food-toys. We’re all different, cities, but we all agree that if there’s something we share, something vital, it’s a nasty streak a stratosphere wide and a galaxy high. Think we’re bad? Try living in the suburbs.

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.

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.

No, I Won’t Have a Heart Attack

When I know that they… And I know that I… There is a space in between where something happens and… But what if the shoe was on the other hand, tied tight with a sock puppet buried inside, casketed? Some things are best left unexplained, unexamined, unreliable, unrefined, underwater, undefined.

So when they… And I… And we together… And if only they wouldn’t… If only I couldn’t… There is a space in between where nothing needs to happen but… And what if the sock was in the laundry hamper, with a pair of jeans with tissue inside a pocket, and the washer/dryer at the laundromat covered all your shirts with white puffballs? Nothing would be clean, holy, sanctified, refined, defined, examined, but it would be explained: tissue in your jeans’ pocket.

And where do you… and they… How do we all… Doing things isn’t as hard as the space between where nothing happens and nothing proceeds and movement is restricted to peripheral limbs only, creating a vacuum of the face, an inability to speak or hear or see the evil, if it is evil, or the good, if it is good, or the grey, the in between, which most things are.

When you know that I… And that they… Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t I be working on things other than midnight lyrics and fortune cookie lines running through my head at a speed too fast to keep track of? So when my coffee gets… And I want to… Because there’s more but not enough… What then? What do I do then?

In the morning afterlight, the spaces in between come close together, the light drains out the Dark Matter, and a face as light as air and heavy as a stone is yours or theirs and… But maybe… Because… And after all… You understand me, don’t you?

Don’t word things at me, hurl them if you must but don’t be delicate. Remember I am not a poet. I am a straightforward mess of a manchild and my expressions are few and far between. So if… And I know that if also… Am I here with you or am I alone? Where are the spaces in between where I found you?

Because… And here I’m being serious, take my words for it, because what if… And that actually… And you aren’t… And I’m not… But what about them? And my jeans? And where is my coffee and my running shoes and sock puppet? Where are my underwear and where is my jersey, where are my shorts and where are my headphones. I’m going out to… I’ll be back when…

No, I won’t have a heart attack. Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be home for dinner.

Never Has She Ever

1. She never listened to her father’s absence of breath.
2. She never said No when it really mattered.
3. She never said Yes when it didn’t.
4. She never watched her mother cry in the mornings.
5. She never learned how to prevent everyone else’s pain.
6. She never learned how to prevent her own.
7. She never dove in headfirst knowing what was waiting on the other side.
8. She never clarified the terms of her contract.
9. She never bothered to create legally binding contracts for her clients.
10. She never paid her taxes without someone else’s help.
11. She never corrected her own grammar if she thought she could get away with it.
12. She never became a ballerina.
13. Or an actress.
14. Or a dishwasher.
15. She never stopped loving anyone.
16. She never liked someone in the same way as they liked her because she believed that it was a human impossibility to like and be equally liked in return.
17. She never learned how to hate.
18. She never learned how to avoid jealousy.
19. Or envy (which is different).
20. Or schadenfreude.
21. Or guilt.
22. She never learned how to horseback ride.
23. She never took a step off a twenty-five story high building.
24. She never shot herself full of things she wished she could, even for the story.
25. She never felt entirely sure.

Go Away

A chalky man walks around Dora’s brain. He’s hard to pin down, never stops long enough for her to get a good look. She knows he is a man, vaguely, or believes he is, because of the effect he has on her. He makes her squirm, not with pleasure, but with discomfort, as so many others have done before.

But the chalk man, unlike the others, doesn’t berate her. He doesn’t mutilate her. He doesn’t corrode her veins and swatches of her skin with verbal acid. His silence is far more terrifying. It is a waiting silence, a tense and pent-up silence, the kind of silence that you can pull like a piece of chewed up gum, pull and pull and pull until it snaps back and sticks to both fingers and is impossible to get off.

Dora walks through her life with this chalk man threatening her. His blurry outline haunts her when she works at the wood shop, overseeing the new people’s handling of saw and sander. He doesn’t distract her – Dora is not to be distracted – but she is as aware of him as of the cyst on her thigh that scrapes every time she walks. He is a physicality that she can put aside, that she can work with, but that she cannot erase with a hot compress.

One day, the chalk man walks through the doors of her workshop and looks around. Looks for her. Frozen, she stands next to a cabinet she has been decorating with delicate carvings, and sees him see her. She feels him come closer. She hears his voice inside her mind and ears both.

“Hi,” he says. “Long time no see.”

She wants to say I love you. She wants to say come back. She wants to say take me. She wants to say you hurt me. She wants to say, and touch, and forgive, and relive; she wants to drink beer in Munich and wine in Madrid; she wants to buy a house and decorate it with her furniture, and she wants him to carry her heavy things inside, to carry her inside too; she wants to erase his erasure of her.

“Go away,” she says. The live chalk man turns, a look of true disappointment blooming around his mouth and crow’s-feet eyes, but the chalk man in her head solidifies and keeps walking in circles.

It will take another year for the chalk man to blur again, to become unknown again, to restore Dora’s ability to keep her hands steady enough to work again. When the chalk man is blurry, he is safer. Not safe, never safe, but safer.

Journeymen

The first job of the day was simple. So simple that Rush could have done it in his sleep. An old woman hovered near him as he flicked up the fuse switches that had been overloaded and shut down by the summer heat and the overuse of air-conditioners.

“You have to be careful using the A/C, ma’am,” he told her. “Don’t turn the oven and the television and all the fans on along with it.” She nodded, eyes glassy with medical grade weed that reeked from her thick flannel nightgown. She was bald. Probably dead soon, Rush thought. He left the building, got  back into his truck, and checked his list for the next job.

As he drove, he considered his recent predicament. Rush had never been in love with a married man before. It was a novel experience, refreshing as the cold spring near his first foster home. The good one. The spring had been icy and sharp on his bony feet, the tingle as close to arousal as he’d gotten as a child.

The married man was not unkind to Rush. He was a friend, sort of, a distant sort. They went out to drinks with the others occasionally. Rush had met him on the job. They were both union electricians, though Rush was only an apprentice and the married man was a journeyman. Rush knew this was part of the attraction. He was lower in the deck of cards than the married man, whose experience, precision with his tools, and dedication to hours of work made him a Jack, where Rush was  only an eight of hearts.

Rush’s second stop of the day proved trickier. It was at one of the two community theater spaces in town and their equipment was old. He had to untangle wires, find their sources, stream new copper wire into select areas, running back and forth to the fuse box to turn the power on and off to see if things were fixed yet. He worked right through his lunch hour.

The journeyman was not only married, but married to a woman. This too was refreshing but in a less pleasant way. Rush had been attracted to plenty of unavailable gay men before; celebrities, prudes, closeted homos playing the straight and narrow for their Catholic parents. But never in his life had Rush felt something like this for a straight man. A married straight man. A married straight journeyman thirteen years his senior. The allure felt Austinian, Jamesian, Forsterian. Rush read things. He knew the married man did too. It was one of the things that had drawn them together, to an extent. An almost shameful love of reading.

The last job of the day for Rush was at a faraway location, out in the suburbs. He parked his trucked and saw that another was there already, its bed filled with similar equipment. This happened sometimes, double bookings, mixed listings, but Rush was unwilling to slack so he went up to the house anyway. The married man was there already, on a ladder in the garage. A woman with long nails painted a deep purple that looked more like shit-brown was hovering beneath him murmuring “Oh, be careful. Please be careful. Oh, please be careful.” She sounded like she was making love to the married journeyman, her voice breathy, her head thrown back to look up at him, her mouth hanging open between words. The married man said nothing, but continued to examine the wires surrounding the apparently defunct lighting system in the garage.

“Hi,” Rush said. The woman looked down and back up in confusion. The married man glanced at Rush and smiled.

“You’re the second one they sent. Guess they don’t think I can do the job.”

Rush laughed because he knew he was supposed to. “Need help now I’m here?”

“Nah. I’ll be good. It’s fine.”

“Okay. See ya.”

Rush fled the garage and got back into his truck. His heart was racing. The woman in the garage would keep making eyes at the straight married journeyman. Rush would go home and watch straight porn for the first time in his life, trying to figure out what the fuss was all about.