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flash nonfiction

Street People – Portraits of the Opioid Crisis by Sally Quon

Street People – Portraits of the Opioid Crisis | Sally Quon

“Marianna”

Marianna is on the street tonight.  She has a bed, but there are times when her psychosis is too big to be contained within the shelter walls.  For the sake of the others, she is sent out.

The street is not a safe place for any woman, maybe especially for Marianna.  She’s an easy mark and her boyfriend, Silver, likes to beat her.

Marianna carries on a constant conversation with herself.  I try to engage her, but she doesn’t respond until I ask, “Who did this to you, Marianna?”

She looks me in the eye and says with perfect clarity, “I’m no snitch.”

After a moment, her private conversation resumes.

If you were to listen closely to the words Marianna says, you’d be horrified.  That didn’t really happen, did it?

I don’t know.  It doesn’t really matter.

It’s real to her.

“Abel”

Abel leans against the counter in the washroom.  His face is marked by dozens of open sores.  Some say the sores are a result of a compromised immune system, others think it’s poor hygiene, and still others think it’s just the body doing its best to expel whatever toxins it can.

Abel thinks it’s because the other residents pour acid on his face while he’s asleep.  He often slips to the floor and sleeps underneath his bed to keep it from happening.  That’s also the only way to prevent shelter staff from casting spells on him.

But it’s not Abel’s face that is causing him concern today.  He has an open safety pin, and he’s using it to dig around in his forearms.

He’s trying to get the worms out.

“Lucy”

She’s not the most beautiful girl in the room, but she’s close.  What Lucy’s got that the others don’t is that spark behind her eyes, a personality that overflows, that won’t be contained.  She’s sweet, she’s funny, and everyone wants to be her friend.  She’s fresh and new.

Lucy can’t even put the needle in.  She gets someone else to inject her – doctoring, they call it.  She’s so afraid that she looks away, and squeals when the plunger goes down.

“I’m trying not to do it anymore,” she whispered to me.

“As long as you can stay away from the needles…” I know that I’m wasting my breath.

“I hate needles.”

“So why do them?”

“These people,” she waves around the injection room, “are the social elite of this place.”

I give her a look.

“The truth is,” she says, “I was hooked before I ever used a needle.  The first time I saw someone do a shot and have an orgasm on the floor.  That’s why I do it.”

Lucy, I want to say, there are better ways to have an orgasm.  Ways that won’t kill you.

But she’s already walking away.

“Shawna”

The drugs kick in. The needle drops to the ground.  Shawna’s eyes are half-closed; she stretches, cat-like, and her hands begin to move over her body.  This is the dance of an addict. It’s sensual, a ballet.  Shawna moves slowly, deliberately, naked pleasure on her face.  She is strong, beautiful.  She is a child, half-wild.  Writhing in her chair, she slips to the floor, her body twisting and bending, shuddering with ecstasy.  I am embarrassed to watch – I am a voyeur, unable to look away.  It’s not that I get turned on watching Shawna use, although maybe I do, a little.  I just want to know what it feels like.  I imagine it.  It scares me.  It thrills me. 

About the Author:

Sally Quon is a dirt-road diva and teller of tales, living in the Okanagan. She has been shortlisted for Vallum Magazine’s Chapbook Prize two consecutive years and is an associate member of the League of Canadian Poets. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies including Chicken Soup for the Soul—the Forgiveness Fix, BIG, Straightening Her Crown, and When Home is Not Safe. Her personal blog, https://featherstone-creative.com is where she posts her back-country adventures and photos.

Categories
flash nonfiction

The Banks of Fairview Lake by Geoff Watkinson

The Banks of Fairview Lake | Geoff Watkinson

When I was five years old, I took my last trip to Fairview Lake—a glacial lake one mile long and half of a mile wide in Sussex County, New Jersey. My maternal grandparents owned a cabin in the small lake community, which was sixty miles north of the town where I grew up. My first vivid memories emerge from the banks of that lake. 

It’s July, late morning. I’m sitting in the backseat of my grandfather’s Cadillac. My younger sister, Kelsey, is beside me and my older brother, Bryan, is next to her. I watch the trees pass by, nursing a stomachache. Bryan puts down the window. I close my eyes and slabs of sunlight flash across the inside of my eyelids. Poppy sings “Row Your Boat,” and it turns into a round, all of us singing. At some point, I drift off.  

When I wake, Poppy is turning onto Fairview Drive. The car plunges down the hill—like a log flume dropping at Disney World—and onto two miles of coiling dirt and gravel road. The Kittatinny Mountains surround us, southeast of the Delaware Water Gap that separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. As soon as Poppy parks in front of the cabin, Bryan and I take off our shoes, run out back, take our fishing poles from the shed, and run down the road toward the lake. 

“Put those shoes back on and be back in an hour for dinner!” Grandma yells. There are copperheads and rattlesnakes and bears. That means little to us. I had once seen a water snake swim from beneath a grouping of lily pads and pass Grandma as she did the backstroke. The wildlife intrigued me.

Bryan and I reel in the sunfish. Time fades. I didn’t yearn for it to pass like when I was in church pews or school desks. Poppy walks down from the house to retrieve us for supper. The three of us walk along the vacant road as the fading daylight trickles between the trees. Fireflies flicker. Crickets chirp. 

My parents had just arrived and we eat hot dogs around the long backyard table, swatting at mosquitoes that come at us like an infinite army. Mom and Grandma clear the table. Poppy sips a beer in the kitchen, whistling to the radio. Bryan, Kelsey, and Dad sit in front of the scratchy black and white TV. 

I am excited to be left alone. I walk to the side of the cabin where the water heater is surrounded with rotting wood.  I slip into the cobwebbed crevice behind it and sit on the dirt. I hide. I want to see what will happen.

After a few minutes, voices unite around the table. “Where’s Geoff?” one asks. They shout my name. I smile, proud of having found such a good hiding spot for a game no one else is aware is being played. Dusk comes like a thick fog, images in the distance losing clarity. Voices resound from the gravel road—some I don’t recognize—and my smile withers into the stale air behind the water heater as the yells begin to upset me.

There’s now a search party scouring the woods with flashlights. The game is over. In tears, I walk to Poppy in the road. He breathes heavy, scowls, and picks me up like a bag of sand, carrying me over his shoulder. “I have him!” Poppy yells to the others. He takes me to the backyard, pulls down my pants and smacks me with an open hand. 

The door to real danger had been cracked open, perhaps, for the first time in my short life. I couldn’t quite see what was one the other side, but my intuition told me it wasn’t good. Years later I would hear stories about Fairview Lake: a drowning, a bear that had torn through a neighbor’s cabin, and a registered sex offender who was a neighbor down the road. 

The darkness of night wasn’t just an absence of light. There were tangible things of which to be afraid. But fear requires a self-awareness that I didn’t have when I tucked myself behind that water heater. I was just a curious little kid. All these years later, I can still hear those voices yelling my name. I can still smell that murky air. I can still see the murky silhouette of my grandfather in the distance, the banks of the lake out there beyond. 

About the Author:

Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in early 2022 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.

Categories
flash nonfiction

Nanami in the Blue Dress by Jessica Mendoza

Nanami in the Blue Dress | Jessica Mendoza

She was my first crush at the age of seven. Nanami in the blue dress, fresh and new and standing at the front of the class, her face white and shining like quartz. Brown freckles splashed across her nose and square cheekbones, her fingers red from fisting into the fabric. Her matching headband sat nobly upon her head, a crown seizing the flickering overhead lights. I couldn’t even look directly at her. 

I kept my gaze askew, staring down at my bumpy plastic pencil case. I felt frumpy, underdressed in my corduroy and light-up sneakers. The teacher declared Nanami the new student, spreading her hands out and demanding we be kind to the little princess in blue. How could I be cruel to her, I thought, when her dark chestnut eyes sparkled like that? When she looked up from under brown lashes and fidgeted in place? When her backpack overflowed with books and books and books, and mine was stuffed the same way? When her dress skirted around her ankles and was so pretty, so pretty I felt unworthy to even look upon her? How could I not be her very best friend?

In the back of my mind, I remembered the old adage – don’t judge a book by its cover. Disney Channel, chapter books, little cartoonish asides on Nickelodeon – they all taught me that looks shouldn’t dictate a friendship. But didn’t she feel the part of my best-friend-to-be? She sat like a reader, torso curved over the desk and empty hands grasping for a story. Her handwriting was so neat and practiced – were those not qualities that dictated a worthy playground partnership?

The sun hung fat overhead when I asked her to be my friend. Nanami sat primly under the tree at recess, legs folded underneath her. She pushed rocks around the dusty earth with a stick alone, all alone, as most outsiders are. 

“Okay,” she said. Her voice was quiet and a little scratchy, as if out of use. I grinned so hard my face burned. I held out a hand and she took it. 

Nanami was a girl, and I was too, so we did all the things two best friends who were girls did. We had sleepovers, we went trick or treating together, our moms took us to the park and the playgrounds. She opened her lunch and traded sticky peanut butter sandwiches for thick slices of pear and salty crackers. Nanami yanked a scrunchie from her hair, freeing her glossy bun, and wrapped my braids in its satin. I could sit there for hours and listen to her talk about her stout little guinea pig and her annoying little brother and the prettiest orange butterfly she’d ever seen. For years we burrowed into each other, plucking pieces of our identities and melting them together. These were the things childhood friends did. 

But for me, Nanami stood uniquely beautiful in my mind. Unlike the other friends I had in my childhood, I wreathed her in gold and lace within my memories. Her headbands were a nimbus under the playground sun, and her laughter resounded with mine like a harmony.

Nanami in the blue dress. As we got older and more aware of the differences between us, things shifted. She spoke to her mother on the day of the presidential election and came back a little more distant. My brown hand in her white palm seemed a plague to her. She turned away while I spoke of all the new things I was learning about my heritage, my roots, my culture. The blackness that her family shielded from her and ignored in me. The entitlement her mother – white and prickly and the worst cook I’d ever had the displeasure of meeting – had over mine.

Nanami in the blue dress, there, in my memory. Before I knew what it meant to love a female friend that way. Before I entered middle school and splashed cold water onto my face, desperate to get rid of the budding and blooming. Before we passed in the halls like strangers, went to the same college, nodded coldly when we saw each other in lecture halls. Before I kissed a girl and fell in love and finally settled into who I was born to be, shedding the fear and confusion that I’d have rather forgotten. Before I forgot. Before I forget.

Nanami in the blue dress. The first clue, the first hint. That sapphic nimbus around her head – the memory-preserved saint of first crushes.

About the Author:

Jessica Mendoza is a young up-and-coming writer born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She holds a B.A. in Screenwriting and is looking towards getting her M.F.A. in Creative Writing. As a professional writing tutor, avid reader, lover of small animals, and serious movie musical nerd, she spends her days talking about her various interests and story ideas to anyone who will listen. Jessica spends most of her time feverishly editing essays and raving about the semicolon’s usefulness to her students, who kindly humor her fits of punctuation passion.

Categories
flash nonfiction

Unravel by Caitlin Matheis

Unravel | Caitlin Matheis

Blue–navy, royal, sky. If we were speaking in general terms, I would tell people that this is my favorite color because I love all the different shades that make blue, blue. Purple–plum, violet, a bright orchid color. His favorite. But he likes the bolder shades. I tend to favor the shyer, more muted, shades like lavender.

I pick up the spools, unwind the different colored strings, trying to make them even in length for the friendship bracelet I am about to create.

I cut seven strings. I group the blue shades together, then the purple. I take each pile, lie them in my palm to try and make them one. I run my hand over them. Smooth them together.

They meet. Sometimes they say hi.

I fold the strings in half, so that each end meets and a bend forms in the middle. I put the bend over a finger, pinch it below so it forms a loop. I twist the loop, point it downward, pull the strings left hanging through the loop to form a knot to make the loop permanent. Connected.

Friends.

I arrange the strings and we start to weave. In and out, end, repeat.

Each movement brings them closer together, makes their paths cross purposefully. Starting the bracelet is exciting, optimistic–this was a good idea.

If we are being specific, my favorite color is periwinkle because it’s the color where blue and purple work together to form one, where the line between blue and purple blurs. I watch as the bracelet forms, the shades of purple starting to melt into blue.

The bracelet is a gradient. Purple turns to periwinkle turns to blue turns to periwinkle turns to purple. Blue and purple are still their own but they are one.

Stop. A knot. Take a needle to work through it, undo it.

The string tangles, more knots form.

Undo, redo, it’s okay.

Sometimes I wonder if forgiveness only gets harder. Or if it only feels harder because it feels like I am the only one working to fix it. Even though he says he wants to.

But I pick apart the knots. Because I care. The bracelet is no longer perfect, but nothing ever really is.

I continue to weave. It looks like a mess. I can’t see where things went wrong, but the last few rows are messy. I pick up the needle, try to unravel it so I can fix it again, but can’t find where things went wrong. Maybe it was a mistake from earlier in the bracelet–spots I’d thought we’d fixed but had only appeared as if they had been. The strings are scarred, fractured, bent from constant reworking. Reminders of how they used to be so close, so connected.

This is not as easy as it once seemed to be. I have to stop. I am frustrated, stressed. The string is frayed–weaker–from constant reworking. There is no hope of finishing the bracelet, of it becoming wearable, beautiful. I won’t be able to do this right and continuing to fight the strings will make them snap. And we are breaking up but we don’t want the strings themselves to break.

How much can I care about someone who doesn’t want to be cared about or someone who doesn’t want to care in return? Does it count if I do? But then, if you genuinely care about someone, can you ever really stop?

We leave the ends of the bracelet loose; we had only just begun weaving it. Loose ends. Only smooth where they hadn’t been woven. Unsure, but hopeful. Potentially dangerous.

Because it’ll end up being okay or I’ll have to throw it away.

I leave the bracelet, rolled up in the cupholder of the front seat of my car, where we had sat many evenings, talking. Right underneath where his palm would meet mine and our fingers would intertwine.

Months later, he would tell me he thought it was stupid that my favorite color was periwinkle. Stupid, he said, because it isn’t even real.

About the Author:

Caitlin Matheis is currently an M.A. candidate in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she studies American Literature and Digital Humanities. Her current research focuses on the influence of archives, public libraries, and librarianship on women’s writing of the Harlem Renaissance. At UNL, she also serves as a writing instructor and as a research assistant at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.

Categories
flash nonfiction

The Code by Laurie Guerin

The Code | Laurie Guerin

You forced yourself to go to this party. You figured external noise would be a welcome respite from the internal dialogue that has played on repeat since the night you found out your husband had been cheating. I mean, you knew he had a rich fantasy life. You knew he objectified women- always had. You were one of them early on, back when being objectified seemed a worthy goal.  There had been more to the marriage, of course, but the bottom line is you gave your heart to a man whose heart belonged to longing. 

The hosts are good friends. The party is outside in their garden. There are tables of food and open bottles of wine. There are fairy lights strung through trees. There’s a fountain with carp. When they rise to the surface of the water their mouths look like empty eye sockets opening and closing. You read somewhere that all goldfish have what it takes to become carp, but they only grow as large as their environment allows. You wonder if these were once aspirational goldfish. You remember when goldfish were ten cents each. You could buy them at the pet store and take them home in a little plastic bag. You bought a dollar’s worth, filled mason jars with fresh water and divvied the fish up into two families. You set the jars side-by-side so the fish could watch their neighbors. Every day at school you imagined returning home to tiny, finned babies, the mason jars and the fish multiplying into an empire. 

One of the guests at the party throws a penny into the fountain. You overhear him telling his date to make a wish.  Glasses chime, delicate as a chorus of seashells, and someone proposes a toast. You climb up on the wide, tiled rim of the fountain. From this vantage point you check out the penny thrower. His hair is parted on the side, like a pastor’s, comb tracks line up nice and even. You’re pretty sure that whoever throws the penny is the one who should make the wish. You wouldn’t want to be with a guy who changed the rules just like that and threw the penny for you. A woman in a yellow sundress holds her glass high and says the usual things about the night being lovely and the hosts being generous. You reach into your pocket and pull out a coin. You close your eyes, taking your time to think of a wish. You remember when you were a kid and thought you’d cracked the magic code when you made all your wishes for more wishes.  In this moment you realize the code must have cracked you because your life has been a series of endless wishes.  Upon realizing this, a person with initiative would make a wish to stop wishing and start doing. You are not that person. You wish to be happier than you are now.  You throw the coin, open your eyes and watch as sightless mouths rise to the surface of the water and blink.

About the Author:

Laurie Guerin is a spoken word artist who has performed her original  works on stage throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. She has co produced  two live storytelling series, Word Up and Tell Me More in Santa Cruz,  California. A student of Roxan McDonald’s, she has also studied with Danusha Lameris, Ellen Bass and most recently Pam Houston. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and more recently in Prometheus Dreaming and she is  currently working on a collection of creative nonfiction essays.

Categories
flash nonfiction

The Coats in Summer People by Christi Krug

The Coats in Summer People | Christi Krug

There’s something wrong with you if you wear coats in summer. It means you don’t live with the people who have tan arms and hair kissed by sun, hair that flashes yellow and almost-white even when you don’t put Sun-In on it. There’s something wrong with Mother putting on her wool coat to walk to Safeway, slow like in another time zone, like walking on the moon, somewhere cold and dark, while children are shouting and riding bikes and running through sprinklers. When I went to see Mother in the hospital there was a man wearing a coat in the waiting room, talking to himself, and that’s another kind of thing that means there’s something wrong with you.

Theodore wears a coat in summer. He wears it when his Big Brother picks him up to go shopping, go to Radio Shack, get ice cream. When he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t have his coat on, and it makes me think maybe his Big Brother can save him from being one of the coats-in-summer people. Or maybe he can’t.

But most days, Theodore wears his coat in summer, and that’s how I know he is not a normal boy anymore. I will go to school and freeze if I have to, on a sunny day in September, and I will stop wearing a coat in February, even if the gusts are gusting and frost is on the grass by the bus stop, because I can’t belong to the coats-in-summer people, can’t run different forever. I want to be in the world of the people who go to the beach, who go on vacations, who have lime green shorts and eat lime green popsicles, not wearing avocado-green coats puffy and fat and thick.

Theodore and Mother have the same kind of wrongness to them, the kind that makes people get quiet and look at each other. One time in a gift shop, the cash register lady smiled and uncomfortable smile and followed us to the back room when I was walking behind Theodore, and we were looking at the greeting cards, and the spider plants, and the big silver decorating letters that said “Beach” and “Relax.” It was hot, and everyone had shorts, and outside on the sidewalk, people were licking ice cream cones piled high with strawberry, mint-chip, and chocolate swirls. Theodore was wearing a coat.

You can’t be with us, even when you are. It means you’ll see things, hear things, feel things, that people in the regular zone don’t understand. When Theodore says, “They’re out to get me,” I don’t know who he’s talking about. He says it again: “They’re out to get me.” And Mother says there are germs on her purse and on the table, and she can’t stop thinking about the germs, and it makes her face pinch up and her voice shake, soft and high. So really, all that’s happening is that they are somewhere else. They look off, away at something, over their shoulder. They see a dolphin on television and say, “There’s a disease you can get from marine animals.”

A coat in summer means you feel the wrong season. 

Or maybe that’s wrong.

Could be the coat in summer protects the skin. The skin of Mother, of Theodore, has many more prickles on it than our skin. The nurse in the hospital called it schizophrenia, but I don’t think she knew about skin. It looks normal, but it is covered with tiny little hands that reach out, get slapped, and scratch, with small, fragile fingernails always trying to hold Mother still, hold Theodore still.

These tiny hands are always getting bumped and bruised, all the invisible hands, and they have to be gently gloved, covered, saved, protected. The coat in summer keeps the bones of their invisible hands from being broken. Also, they don’t have to touch people all the time. Touching people creates electric currents and it hurts. 

Mother says the doctors sent electricity through her when she was young, and now she doesn’t remember things. She always remembers her coat, though. I always remember there’s something wrong, and so I forget my coat every time I can, leave it on the playground, ride my bike in my T-shirt, get sunburned. I can be one less wrongness. I can be with the ones who shop in the gift shop and no one says a thing. Maybe someday if no one else can save Mother and Theodore, I can come back from this place to their place and give them someone to belong to, even with their coats on.

About the Author:

Christi Krug’s poetry and prose have appeared in everything from religious magazines to horror anthologies to comic zines. Her latest stories appear in Griffel, Nightingale & Sparrow, Montana Mouthful, and Luna Station Quarterly. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and recently served as writer-in-residence at North Cascades Institute. Since 1997, she has been a community educator for Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. Christi is a multifaceted coach of creativity and mindfulness and the author of Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough. www.christikrug.com

Categories
flash nonfiction

Into the Stratosphere by Ken Szymanski

Into the Stratosphere | Ken Szymanski

Call me foolish, but I’m pulling up to Flynn Elementary School on a windy Sunday in March with two sons, two kites, and a dog. We’ve come in search of wide-open space and great gusts of wind and compared to the valley down below where we live, this place feels like Mount Olympus. Spring days like this—with 30-40 mph gales—are rare, and up here on the hill the kites should take flight with ease. 

We park on the road and walk out onto the open soccer field—the sweeping sky above us. I get Kite One up in no time. My thirteen-year-old son struggles with Kite Two’s tendency to nose-dive while my ten-year-old son runs with the dog on a leash. Before I even have a chance to admire Kite One and say something like “Gravity’s got nothing on us,” the dog has cut loose and I realize I’ve got one too many things to hang onto. Kite One is already at full height and going strong, so I hook the C-shaped plastic spool to the soccer net and help my younger son catch the dog. 

Once we’ve retrieved our dog, I hold the leash while the boys work the kites—now both sky-high. Acting as ground control, I shout instructions through the gusts of wind. “They’re going to get tangled! Pull back! Pull back! Move over!”

My younger son asks, “What would happen if I let go?” 

“Don’t,” I respond. 

“But what would happen if I did?”

“Don’t,” I repeat. 

I go help my older son, who is stuck with the slightly defective Kite Two. We make adjustments and get a better lift-off. Then he turns and says, “Look at Evan’s kite! Woah!!!!” 

It’s drifting—far past the string’s limit, 100 yards up and over the school. And it just keeps going. Forget about, “Houston, we have a problem.” I can guess the problem.  

“Did you let it go?” I shout into the wind. 

“I did but I tried to catch it!”

“Why did you let it go?”

“I tried to catch it!”

It’s only a four-dollar kite, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to send it into the stratosphere. Both boys run to the other side of the school to track it while the dog and I bring down Kite Two. 

I place Kite Two in the van and go check on the boys. My annoyance is replaced by the lift I feel from seeing them excited and collaborating. They’re under a tree in front of the school looking up, pointing, and laughing. The kite is still flying high in the air, but the C-shaped spool caught a tree branch. Now, in effect, the tree is flying the kite—with far less effort than we were putting into it. 

“With the wind blowing like this, that kite is not coming down,” I say. With the spool caught on a branch too high up for us to reach, that kite will be in limbo all day. Again, it’s a four-dollar kite, but if rescue is possible… 

“We could go home and get the ladder,” I say. “Or maybe if we stood on top of the van, we could reach it.”

“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” they yell. “Get the van!”

The dog and I return with the rescue van, which is parked close by on the road, and we pull it beneath the tree. I boost both boys up on top of the van. They’re not only lighter than me and easier on the roof, they’re also thrilled to be standing up there. From his new scaffold, the oldest is just tall enough to grab the spool, unhook it, and hand it down to me. 

When I was younger than both these boys, I once flew kites with a bunch of relatives in a Minneapolis parking lot. The string slipped out of my cousin’s hand; it shot straight toward the sky with the kite. But my uncle saw it, jumped up, and snatched the string —with the agility of a Labrador retriever leaping after a Frisbee. That looked like a superpower to me. Here, our kite rescue is clumsy by comparison, but satisfying nonetheless. 

“Can we fly the kite out the window on the way home?” my older son asks. I remind him of powerlines. “Oh yeah,” he says.

Then, on our way down Brackett Hill, back to the lowlands, my younger son asks, “What would have happened to the kite if the tree hadn’t caught it?”

“It would’ve just kept flying forever,” I say.

He thinks about it, then responds: “Imagine if in a million years some guy was flying to Mars and he looked out the window and saw it.”

Imagine.  

I return home with two sons, a dog, and two kites: all intact. Ground control, mission complete. The kids soared like kites, and I was their string, keeping them tethered. And on this day, the winds—which are always beyond our control—gave us a lift for the ages. 

About the Author:

Author Ken Szymanski in Eau Claire on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Ken Szymanski is the 2020-2022 Writer in Residence for Eau Claire, WI, where he was born and raised. He honed his craft through nights performing at poetry slams and even later nights writing concert reviews as a free-lance music journalist. He’s a long-time contributor for Volume One Magazine, and audio versions of his essays have appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio. With his wife and two sons, he lives in Eau Claire—where he teaches 8th grade English. He recently released a collection of non-fiction essays called Home Field Advantage. For more on Szymanski, visit www.kenszymanski.com

Categories
flash nonfiction

Blinding by Ali Bryan

Blinding | Ali Bryan

Gather the children. The leggy girl, eight and full of promise. The freckled and fat-footed boy in the Ninja Turtles trunks. The slippery baby with the coppery hair and a penchant for breastfeeding. 

Guide them across the pool deck avoiding the snapped goggles and wet Band-Aids and Croc-ked lifeguards. The towels in lumps against the wall. The moms that don’t swim. Adjust your sagging suit.

Stop outside the steam room and study the sign. Note the shapeless seniors hunched and parked like stuffed animals behind the foggy glass door. Wonder if there’s room for your small army to join their séance. To melt away.

Remind your kids this is not a play place. It’s a place to sit. A place to drip. A place to think. About what? They ask. Anything, you reply. Thinking is free in the steam room. Your children process this with fierce anticipation. They think about what they’ll think about. The baby grabs your breast. Milk is all she thinks.

Push open the door and swallow a cloud of heat. A woman in a practical Speedo with cashew skin leaves to make room. An older woman follows. Arrange your brood across an upper bench. Remind them that they’re here to think. The boy closes his eyes.

Observe the man across from you. His hide-like skin, tanned and age-spotted, his large hands bracing the edge of the seat. Hair the color of steam. His smile. Wonder why he’s smiling. Assume he’s a pervert. Here, alone. Which of you is he staring at? Which of you does he want?

Tug your kids into a tight heap, like a pile of laundry. Close. Embrace the heaviness of the steam, the silence and the scent of the chlorine. Ignore the baby’s desperate attempts to nurse, the man’s desperate attempts to connect. He’s still smiling. He watches. Hope that he will go.  Hope he will award you two minutes alone in this sacred place to think/not think.

You’re lucky, he says. To have three. Three kids he means, of course. Their fleshy thighs press against you, their sopping hair and wrinkled suits graze your arms. Know they worship you. Know the weight of their expectations. Heavy as steam.

I am, you reply, as you contemplate his comment. Strange, but not perverted. A benign observation.

I used to have two, he says, wistfully, thoughtfully. My son died ten years ago. In a car accident. The story, like the car his son was driving, moves full speed ahead.  My daughter crosses her ankles, fidgets, traces shapes on the blue tiled wall. My son is still thinking, eyes squeezed shut. The baby bounces her face off my chest. He came to the top of the hill. They think it was the sun, hey? Blinded him. Head on collision with a tractor-trailer. Died instantly. The man shakes his head. 

His grief floats around the room. You swallow it whole. Taste his pain. I’m sorry, you whisper. Sorry that you lost a child. For thinking that you were a pervert. For thinking that you were anything but a human looking for something: connection, commiseration, compassion. 

We only have our daughter now to rely on. We are old. 

Sit, all of you, with your thoughts, which swirl and collide and touch. Except for the relentless baby who does not. You stand. Collect her on your hip, tell the others it’s time to go. They open the door sending in a rush of cool, thoughtless air. You stop and turn to the man. Your words have fled, but you still have your hands. You touch his shoulder. You touch his shoulder. You touch his shoulder. 

In the locker room you dress. Your son jumps up and down, shares what he was thinking. Your baby feeds. Your oldest brushes her hair.  You stuff wet towels into a bag, order kids to stand in a line, collect things, tie laces, zip coats. 

You walk outside into the blinding sun with your three. 

About the Author:

Ali Bryan’s first novel, Roost, won the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction and her second novel, The Figgs, was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. She’s longlisted for the CBC Canada Writes CNF prize, shortlisted for the Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Award, and won the 2020 Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story. Her debut YA novel, The Hill, was released in March from Dottir Press. She lives in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, where she has a wrestling room in her garage and regularly gets choked out by her family.

Categories
flash nonfiction

Read Her Lips by Bryan Starchman

Read Her Lips | By Bryan Starchman

My mind was busy as I made a beeline for the bathroom in the back of the Chevron Minimart in Kayenta, Arizona. I was passing through the automatic sliding doors when I almost smacked into this scary looking son of a bitch. He was taller than me, probably six-foot-eight, but maybe even taller because he was hunched over. He was wearing a heavy black duster in the middle of June and his hair was greasy. Not from product, but from filth. It was long and stringy and I could see where it had stained the shoulders of his coat. But what struck me was the way he was holding onto their wrists. 

Two girls. Maybe seven or eight. I can’t be sure. It was just a moment but I’d say seven or eight. One looked like she could be his progeny. Skinny. Pale. Greasy hair. Tall for her age. But the other, the one he seemed scared of losing, she just didn’t make sense. Olive skin. Shoeless. A tattered sundress that was too big. And green eyes like I’ve never seen. 

I’ve met people who claim to have green eyes and really they’re hazel or mud-colored. But this little girl looked up at me with the greenest eyes. Forest green. If you could capture the essence of a pine tree and photoshop that into your sockets. There you go. I can’t shake it. 

And in that split second I was trying to deduce what the situation was…who was this man to these little girls…what was their relationship…why was he holding them so tight…why the too big dress and why the greasy hair?  All three had greasy hair, like they hadn’t showered in weeks. And where were her shoes? Even with a summer storm on the horizon, the pavement was blistering hot. In that split second, I looked into her green eyes and she mouthed something. “Could we please?”

Could we please what? Was it a silent plea to her unlikely dad to buy a bag of chips or an ice cream sandwich or a cheap pair of flip flops? Could we please visit our mom? Could we please stay at a hotel? Take a hot shower? Get cleaned up? Could we please buy me a dress that fits? 

And why was she looking at me as she asked him this question? 

The tall man sensed her hesitation and he sped up, dragging the girls away. I took a step or two into the minimart and by the time I turned around he was slamming them away behind the passenger door of a rusted El Camino. He climbed in, started the engine, and sped off. And I just stood there. Wondering if lip reading was a thing. 

*** 

I often get lost in that moment. Late at night. With my laptop open on the coffee table as I stare at the television but I’m not really watching. I’ll mute the TV to try to focus on my writing and I’ll look up and try to guess what the actors are saying. What the commercials are advertising. I’ll try to read their lips. Most of the time I get it wrong but some things I can figure out like “safe drivers save forty percent” or “Ford sales event.” But I can always turn up the volume and confirm my suspicions. And then I’ll remember what the green-eyed girl mouthed to me: “Could we please?” 

Was it “Could we please?” 

Or was she telling me to “Call the police”? 

About the Author:

BRYAN STARCHMAN is an author, published playwright, and educator living in San Francisco, California. His plays have been produced over 3000 times in all 50 states and 10 countries. In the past year his short fiction has been featured in The Saturday Evening Post and in the literary magazines After Dinner Conversation, In Parentheses, Scribble, Apracity, Avalon Literary Review and Litro. His non-fiction essays have been featured in the national print magazine ROVA and his latest book, United Scenes of America: Travel Essays in the time of COVID-19 and Other Wanderings, is now available at Amazon.com IG @Bryan.starchman

Categories
flash nonfiction

May There Always Be by Katie Kalahan

May There Always Be | By Katie Kalahan

My mom likes to say that her goal is to have all of her children (there are only two of us) in one time zone. My parents recently moved to Arizona, where time is the same all year round; they don’t follow daylight saving. For half of the year, my mom is in my brother’s time zone—Mountain Time. For the other half, she is in mine—Pacific Time. 

When I was little, my mom asked me to make a drawing on a piece of paper. I don’t know how old I was. I drew the woods behind our house, which had a trail that led up to a park. In fact it was a few lines in crayon but I remember how it looked when I drew it—a lush and fully formed image. She wrote a quote on it in calligraphy, and entered it into a juried show. 

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In college, I made an artist book for my senior thesis about my mom—Unsaid. I didn’t believe that I thought about my relationship with my mom that much so I surprised myself by writing about her. The book is a series of brief passages describing my memories of the times I learned about sexuality and my body from my mom. There weren’t many times; it was easy to include them all. The images behind the text are halftone lithographs of me and my girlfriend at the time in intimate moments—they aren’t explicit but they are sexual. The colophon of the book says that I made it before I came out to my mom, because I didn’t come out to my parents until I graduated from college and could be financially independent from them, until I felt they had no standing to try to tell me how to live my life. 

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The drawing and calligraphy were a collaboration but I was too young to understand. The book was a collaboration but my mom didn’t know about it until it was done. Making art about someone I love is a collaboration, whether they know about it or not. 

For years I have been living with the idea of a piece, called Perfect Lovers by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I have never seen it in person. I have never sat in front of it and cried. Gonzalez-Torres is, for me, a friend I have never met, whose life only overlapped with mine by six years, whose life is abjectly unlike mine and yet—I feel an affinity for him. 

Always, if I am drawn to someone, I am afraid that they will not be drawn to me. 

Perfect Lovers is two clocks, set to the same time. As they run, one will inevitably die before the other. They will fall out of sync. 

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But what if the most perfect love is between mother and child, when their hearts beat as one? And the rest of life is the process of falling out of sync?

Even mothers and three-month-old infants can synchronize their heartbeats. But now, three decades after she incubated me, our hearts are mysteries to one another. 

When I was in high school and college I made art with words where I layered words over each other to make an image; the words jittered and shook together over each other repeated and repeated to create something new. When my mom was in college she did the same. I didn’t know until after I graduated and she handed me some of her prints. I hadn’t known she had made prints, I knew my mom as a lapsed calligrapher and as a graphic designer who mostly laid out church programs and instruction manuals.

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I wrote about Felix Gonzalez-Torres in college, something about transcendence and the need for finding transcendence through sex for queer people. “Non-traditional sites of transcendence,” I think I said in an attempt to sound academic. Later, I wrote a story about artists in New York in a threesome marked by different kinds of intimacy and different kinds of power. I named the cat in the story and the story itself after him: “Felix”. I don’t know if I can even compare it, my life to his, my pain to his pain, my love to his love, but there is an affinity there or simply admiration, and there was a point in my life that I needed to see that a photo of the shared bed of two men—two men in love—was put on billboards around New York City, in a year when I was too young to know I was different from my mom. 

Gonzalez-Torres’ work is so beautiful and so simple that viewers are drawn in before they realize how it implicates them. So that to look away is an active choice. His work is shot through with grief, which is the desire for the future you imagined, which will never come to be: AIDS without crisis, government without lies, love without loss, perfect parents, a child who doesn’t leave.

If straight desire is the desire for your counterpart, the difference, the calendar to your clock, then same-gender desire is the desire for your mirror. 

I remember saying once, about that girlfriend whose body against mine is printed into a book about my mom, that good relationships are like being both parent and child. You get to take care of and you get to be taken care of. Perfect lovers. 

Now my mom knits, she knits beautiful and delicate garments and she knits silly ornaments and she knits for charity and for gifts and all the time. My mom likes to knit socks, which are always matching and never a perfect pair. I hate knitting. I don’t have the patience she has.

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When I started writing this essay, I didn’t remember what that quote was on our earliest collaboration. I thought that maybe it was something about ‘home’.

As I drew each image, I kept thinking about the quote. And as I drew a facsimile of my own crayon drawing, I remembered fragments: “May there always be sunshine,” I remembered, “may there always be mama, may there always be me.” I searched for it and found that it’s from a 1993 Raffi song, so I was older than three when we made that collaboration. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996. He was born two years after my mom. Perfect Lovers was first shown in 1991, when my heart was still beating in time with my mother’s. 

About the Author:

Katie Kalahan says that she lives and works in Seattle, but right now, they actually live in Olympia. They are pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and hold a BFA in Printmaking/Drawing and English Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis. Her work is published in The Ear, Thin Air Magazine, and Witness Magazine.