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.

sugarland_frontpromo_CVR

Review: Bigfoots in Paradise by Doug Lawson

Doug Lawson’s upcoming collection of short stories, a review.

Book Review: Doug Lawson’s collection of short stories is set in and around Santa Cruz, California, between Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean. There are eight stories, each about 20-30 pages, and many have been previously published in journals such as Gargoyle, Glimmer Train, and Mississippi Review amongst others.

Doug Lawson writes with confidence and his prose is lyrical, poetic and he comfortably blends dark comedy and empathic observations. Lawson pays attention to those details that sum up characters in only a sentence or two. A car belonging to the boss in Catch The Air has “empty Starbucks cups, a stained Stanford sweatshirt, a pair of heels, a familiar lace bra, a dismantled circuit board.” I can picture Helen now and it’s also telling of the narrator as to what he notices within the chaos of her cluttered vehicle.

In Jersey Devils, Alpo is described with such vivid specifics: “With a string-haired, rounded head, arms the seem just a little too long, and small wrinkled hands clasping a shopping bag.” The image lingers as I read of their job visiting farms, innocuous enough sounding yet isn’t. These stories often take wonderful unexpected turns and I found myself reading one story after another, wanting more.

Opening lines bring you in fast: “Several weeks before he died, my father showed up for my wedding on time, riding a meticulously restored World War II army motorcycle with Jessica, his nurse, in the sidecar.” Don’t you want to know more about this dad? I did.

There are also moments of such tenderness that made me sit back and absorb them before moving along, especially at the end of House on Bear Mountain. There is an unexpected and funny turn when Claire stands up for herself and then ends with a gentle truth of how she “found her true voice.” You’ll have to find it for yourselves, and read the story she tells her daughter about the dogs’ dinner times. Sweetly done.

Lawson knows the territory and it comes across, I picture the landscape and personalities. The environment is clearly described and the characters could only live there, it’s a unique world he’s created and shared here.

Wonderful work.

Big Foots in Paradise

Doug Lawson

Fiction

Red Hen Press, CA.

Tentative Details are

Pub Date: 10/16/18

214 pp $15.95

What is a short-short story?

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness.

Writer’s Craft: What is exactly is a Short-Short Story?

The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable, fable, and myth, wrote Robert Shaphard in 1986.

Yes, in 1986! I had no idea. I’ve only really become aware of the form in the last few months, perhaps I read some before but without labelling it as such? I don’t know. However, I’ve been on the search.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories is a collection of work all under 1500 words, published in the mid-eighties, with such notables as Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading as much flash fiction and short stories recently because that’s what I’m turning to as I write. I wanted to find out more, find the history, learn the craft, and then probably ignore much of it knowing me. Still, it’s good to know what works, what has lasted. I’d not known the rich history though and this collection also had three short sections at the back where the authors talked about the form, what does it need to hold together, what is the best category to use, the naming of form and the craft as they saw it then.

How do we define and do we need to? Yes, we’re writers, we’re programmed that way, to write it out to make sense of the experience. Hence this short essay.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories has so many stories that are touching, inventive, suggestive. A week’s worth of reading if you’re like me and have to take on short story at a time, read with it, put it down, and let it rest.

At the end of the collection are three sections where the authors were asked to write about the craft, tradition, and yes, how to name this form. The discourse between the writers was just as interesting and their characters came out even in those responses.

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness, a stripping away of anything unnecessary. There’s economy, wit, a turn at the end that is often funny, shocking, touching, or unexpected. Each one gives a sense of place, mood, scene and atmosphere in under three pages. I’d say they’re often less narrative and more evocative. They give us, the readers, a slice or quality of life, a moment of discovery, or a flash of illumination. They are complete and when you finish, the last line stains and lingers. That is the beauty of the form. The compact completeness that lingers.

There’s nothing like reading quality stories that inspire and this collection did. There are over sixty-five pieces, and only thirteen are by women writers. Shame. I’ll say nothing else here on that topic.

When critics and authors explain the interest in short-shorts these days (2018) they often claim it’s a result of the Internet, short attention spans, an influx of information. Exactly the same was said thrity years ago, even longer as some of the pieces in this Sudden Fiction came from the sixties. Perhaps then it’s just that there’s something so satisfying to dive into a world for only a few pages, if that, and be touched and surprised?

Whether I call them vignettes, prose poems, sketches, parables, fables, flash or short-shorts, these condensed concise tales of moment or incident live in a no man’s land that appeals to me. I’m enjoying playing with moments, memories, imagination, words and forms. This then is the start of a new body of work for me. I’m having fun. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far so good, I have over fifty of the buggers. I’m on a roll.

Here then is one my latest shorts:

First Date

She folds up her long legs into the front seat of the old Toyota truck, window rolled down, one silky arm draped out touching the trees as we drive down narrow rocky back roads mid morning and her other hand holds a tall mug of creamy coffee, clasping it carefully with feline fingers that trace the curves, and I drive with eyes averted, focused on the dangers ahead, the rocks unseen, the flash of animals in the woods, and the sun creeps into the valley as we head up and up, deeper and deeper into the unknown New Mexico wilds with only a vague sense of direction, the truck trundles onwards unflinching and reliable with the steady churning of gears slower and slower and the world gets rockier and my hands clench with determination not to wander too far off course and we’re barely moving but covering so much ground as we catch up and laugh out loud and tease and I drive, ignoring the hand on my lap, and squinting in the bright light, and then our mountain track opens up to a meadow of sunflowers as tall as this woman beside me and she turns to me and says, Stop, and I did and I still don’t regret a thing.

Flash Fiction: Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you

Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.

 

(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)

Twitter @Princeharry5566

Twitter. Today. Dear Princeharry5566. Got your message. I can answer you now. It’s already been a couple of hours, I’m sorry. Princeharry5566, thanks for following me, I’m right flattered. Princeharry5566, not many young men notice women my age, you were raised right. I’m flattered of course, who wouldn’t be, what with a real live prince? I got the message you sent asking me where I’m from; maybe you looked at profile and saw I’m English too? We’ve not met, yet, but I remember getting plastered when your mum and dad got hitched, it was scrumpy cider and we were in the Mendip hills, and us girls got a bit messy. We spent the afternoon on a horse ride until 3pm and then cleaned up and sat in front of the telly with our cider and snacks, waving our silly little flags, but we’d drunk all that cider and then those flags did naughty things and the telly went on the blink and that was that. Did we miss much after four when it was tea time, you wouldn’t know really but maybe your mum said something? It was quite the day and so much has happened since then and you’re tweeting to me about your wife and you. I read your profile and your posts but you do need to edit. Your profile is in first person and third. Like it’s copied and pasted? Well, nice chatting. To think. Princeharry5566. And me.