Twenty-one Days to Change a Habit

Flash Fiction:

Can I go twenty one days? It seems like an awfully long time. I thought about three weeks and what it means, not as Mr Gerard Faulkner wanted me to consider it (as a time to respond the changes in the condo association ordinances number 201:45B and 201:45C) but as a dry time. I sat there at the new neighborhood monthly maintenance meeting at the up and coming golf club restaurant with a pint in hand, listening and throwing in my two cents worth, that is – not much–but I was speaking up every so often so my neighbors thought I cared as much as they do but I don’t. I don’t. I have to show up or I’ll have them screech to a halt on their way home down the cul-de-sac past the gatekeeper’s original home which is now my home and I’m no gatekeeper by any sense. I can’t be bothered and so I’m not bothered except I am but I don’t say anything because like I told you I don’t want them to stop and yell as me as I sit in my front yard sniffing my family heirloom roses as if the new development hadn’t magically appeared after Mom and Dad died. I’d sold the farm for a good price not thinking I’d miss the fields or the view of the Lindon Hills over past Mrs. Jarrod Hunkers place half a mile a way but I do miss them, Mom and Dad, and the farm and the fields, and the view and even Mrs. Jarrod Hunhkers who’s never forgiven me and neither have I and so I drink to keep it all in and I drink to shut up and I drink to be social and what would happen if I stopped?

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The Bus Ticket

Her eyes lit up. Blue. Pale. Her skin was dirty, skin weathered, chin sunburnt, and a huge genuine smile that broke you open again. Again. Linda, you’d chatted a few times on Main Street over the months. Her and the backpack, talking of camping in the park out of sight. “I’ll be alright, won’t I?” she’d asked and you’d said yes. You think she was.

You waved at her this morning. She was walking slowly up State, the farmers’ market out in force. She stopped at your voice. She lit up seeing you. You chatted, glad she was okay. Then she asked you for money for a supposed ticket. Instinct kicked in and you said “no, I can’t help.”

But you gave her $3.25 in quarters from your front pocket.

“I’m going home to my mom. I need to catch the bus today, that’s what she said. She worries about me for some reason.”

“They do that,” you joked.

You talked about how much the bus ticket was – $35, how much she needed – $8 total, and perhaps she could ask at the market? Feeling shy today, she muttered.

She again asked for your help. You lied. You fucking lied to her.

In your back pocket was $25 in cash. You never have cash. You’d just bought and eaten a fresh ham and cheese croissant for $4.50. She’d only asked for another $5 for a ticket home to her mom and you’d lied? For fuck’s sake, Sleam. You chatted a bit more, crossed the road together and then she walked to the bus stop anyway.

You walked away.

The sun beat down.

Hot day ahead.

Your cool apartment.

Fans blurring the edges.

Fridge full.

Cash in pocket.

Croissant crumbs on your tee shirt.

And

You’d lied to Linda.

You walked around Bear Pond Bookstore, tempted by another collection of essays that you don’t need. You walked out. Linda sat on a concrete bench in the shade of an Ash tree, stretching out one leg, pack at her feet. You called her name and gave her a fiver.

Her face lit up. You chatted together. Again.

You walked away, crying. You? You… No, me, but you knew that, right? Yes.

I had lied to Linda.

Wishing her a safe trip home, I turned home and began to cry again because I’m so fucking angry at the world and life and me me me and for fuck’s sake, someone asked for help and you didn’t want-that is, I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone and I couldn’t shut down and so my heart broke again and I cried. I am now. I’ve been there: Broke. Homeless. Reaching out. And helped by strangers for their own reasons.

Linda gets to see her mom.

I wish I could see mine one more time.

Review: Sugar Land by Tammy Lynne Stoner

Sugar Land is the story of one hell of a character called Miss Dara. The novel starts in Midland, Texas, in 1923 and it spans her whole life, divided into three sections. We meet her as a 19 yr. old when she falls for her best friend, Rhodie. The attraction is mutual and they spend a few weeks together in bliss before being caught by Rhodie’s mother. The local preacher is brought in to deal with the girls. Rhodie, the girlfriend, leaves town for college and Dara takes a job in the local prison, Sugar Land, as a cook. Once there she becomes close to Lead Belly, the historically wellknown blues singer. He is determined to get out, legally, and does by singing to the Warden and Governor who grant him a release. Lead Belly makes Dara promise to leave as well, to follow her own passions.

The second section, Nana Dara, is the shortest with only 44 pages, and is focused on her time after marrying her way out of prison. Her husband is the Warden, an easy-going man, with two young children of his own. It’s a surprisingly happy marriage despite knowing she’s gay and missing her first love.

The last section, Mrs. Dara, the longest one, is also the funniest and most engaging. Mrs. Dara is a widower, full of herself with a wonderful inner logic and attitude to life. She’s grown into a mischievous character:

‘Now I was an older lady–a widower even–I felt somehow above the law. “I’m going to sneak in and take the pictures down.”

“This is criminal behavior we are discussing here.”

I tsked and pulled up the leg of my coveralls to scratch my knee.’

Stoner writes such great character descriptions that stay with you the whole way through the book. You’ll not forget these images for example Stoner opened Sugar Land with Dara describing herself:

“I wore a dress that made me look like a curvy brown sack and I couldn’t stop burping up the oatmeal I’d had for breakfast.”
The tone, voice, and Dara character all are given to us immediately so lightly and vividly, it’s great. Later on, Dara described her husband, the Warden, as a “big-chested man with precisely trimmed sideburns.” Again, the description of when they’re first married, Dara said, “he held me all night long with his forearm as warm as butter on my belly.”

Stoner’s use of language is so precise and perfect for the time and era, for these characters. This skill shows up in the chapter titles too, such as ‘The Preacher said sit down, so I did,’ ‘Pepto Dismal’ and ‘Hairnet.’

The simple sentences suit Dara and her inner monologues catch her emotions in a few words.

When Dara receives a love letter from her girlfriend soon after taking the job in the prison, and still a teenager in love, “I didn’t care about making my bed. I didn’t care about pie.”

Later on, when Dara faced another painful moment with her step-children, she said, “a tumbleweed rolled across the empty space inside my chest.”

I’d expected more of a harsh tale about being gay in that time frame given how the blurb on the back cover had mentioned how Dara discovered that life ‘outside isn’t all sweet tea and roses.’ It was instead a light read, generous spirited, and satisfying in many ways. The friendships and relationships were done with such humor and witty observations that you couldn’t help but like them all, even the fussy daughter, Debbie, the useless but well-meaning Fiddler who moves in to her trailer for a while. Dara describes him by the results of him helping out:

“By the end of the first year I’d lost three clocks and two phones and had to have the oil seal on my truck redone, God bless him.”

There are great moments of slapstick done in a deadpan voice and this is what’s so magical about this book– Dara’s voice. You want to stick with her, hear what she gets up and you’re never that surprised, in a good way, like when she breaks into her daughter’s place and utterly fails. “I was lying in the exact location the Rottweilers visited every evening to relieve themselves of what must be high fiber meals.”

Stoner has written a book that is heartfelt and tender. The relationship with the step-children and their own challenges come across without fanfare but depth. The budding relationship with Mrs. Tanya May Rogerton’s is wonderfully awkward and sweet. Her hand “burned a mark on my thigh the same way holy water marks the possessed–deep, hot, and permanent.”

These characters linger and are quite unforgettable. It’s very much a Southern book in language and with Stoner’s observations that are wry and thoughtful. Sugar Land spans decades in a well-told, easy going manner and I finished the book with a satisfied smile.

Red Hen Press, California

Tentative Pub date: 10/23/2018

Price $16.95,  334 pp.

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